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the daily minimum, at home

Tuesday I shared a basic ten (ok, fifteen) minute class to practice at home. Today we have a slightly more vigorous ashtanga-based option. We’ll call it “the daily minimum +.”

If you are just beginning to practice at home, make sure to the same things you’d do in a class. Turn off your phone. Take a minute to ground into your body, using some pranayama or mantra. Commit to spending the next 10 minutes (or hour, or two) on your yoga. If you don’t think you have the discipline to do this, you can pay me a handsome fee to come teach you some.

This sequence takes about 25 minutes, unless you want to dally. If you have less time, simply do the sun salutations, shoulder- and/or headstand, and savanasana.

Some good suggestions for abbreviated ashtanga practices can be found at the top of this FAQ. I especially appreciate these lines at the end, “While it is important to be sensitive to the needs of the body and mind, it is also important to look critically at these needs. Frequently, these needs are actually subtle avoidance mechanisms. If you are sore, tired, or don’t feel like practicing. Acknowledge those feelings and sensations, drop the expectations about what practice should be like and practice anyway.” Yup.

Savasana the movie (above) is short (1 minute) and pretty funny. Watch!

(Thanks, YogaDawg.)

 

yoga vacation: upstate new york

us1A few weeks ago I had some time off and needed to get out of the city. Once or twice a year I do a meditation retreat. Sometimes my own, sometimes a group, sometimes a combination. This year I needed to get some work done, so I looked up quiet places to go upstate in the Catskills. I found a place on airbnb, which I recommend for its know-your-fellow-man/community aspect, though their customer service ranges from okay to beyond dreadful. Luckily you probably won’t need it. Airbnb is kind of like couchsurfing for adults. You generally get a bed. Often you can rent a whole place, but I like to stay with hosts, to meet the locals and get an idea of a place. I found a lovely home in Livingston Manor with a Buddhist woman and her five cats. It was the perfect place to retreat.

US2This is a suggestive, not specific, guide. I trust you’ve the ability to plan something like this on your own, should you like, without the specifics. I spent ~$301 on my one-week holiday, and $74 of it was the wtf-cash-only Shortline bus ticket. Cash only? That is a major operation with a monopoly on all locations North. Now there’s a racket.

I stayed for a bit less than a week, and settled into a rhythm. Up at 5:30a. Coffee. Sit. Read. Around 8a, Cynthia (my host) would make a breakfast of goose, chicken, or duck egg omelets and greens and mushrooms from her garden. After breakfast I’d read some more. I brought three books, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, which I chatted about last time, The Spirituality of the Body, by Alexander Lowen (which Horton had mentioned in her Yoga PhD), and Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride by Jungian analyst Marion Woodman. They all had a different tone, so I could shift gears when I felt the urge.

In the afternoon, some days we went to town, others I meandered outside. I sat again, then practiced yoga at 4pm. Then dinner, more reading, and bed. I spent some time working on my laptop as well, but the internet was really slow and my laptop too old to do much more than type a bit.

US3It takes me awhile to settle into this pace. On the first few days of solo retreats, I tend to be lonely in a way I’m not when I’m doing the same thing at home, as I learned when I did a retreat in the city last year. The company of my home and my routine somehow pads me from the existential angst that settles in when I’m away from home and friends and habits. This is maybe a good thing though, as it’s a chance to look at something that’s probably humming underneath the habitual life. It sure can suck though, that look. The incessant rain and the dropping temperatures didn’t help.

us4But it was cozy next to the wood burning stove with a cat or two to keep me warm. I enjoyed my reading and finished most of it, but for the Woodman, which I like to read before bed to trigger dreams. By the third or forth day I’d settled into the rhythm and was enjoying the peace. And then, the benefits of a retreat aren’t always obvious until even a month after its end. Plenty of sights are just coming up now.

The town was cute and basic, with an outdoors store that offers yoga, zumba and hiking trips, a little organic market, a bank, a diner, and Peck’s Market, an IGA supermarket with the largest pickle selection I’ve ever seen and “donut-shop blend” IGA coffee in a box.

One day Cynthia took me to the Sisters of Bethlehem of the Assumption of the Virgin and of St. Bruno, which turned out to be a real highlight of the trip (photos). The Little Sisters of Bethlehem is an eremitical monastery, i.e. the sisters are hermits. Each nun lives in her own small hermitage, each connected by a cloister that leads to the chapel. It is an intense and gorgeous place. The chapel and land are beautiful.

SofB

The unstaffed gift shop is full of art the sisters create for the love of God. The handmade medallions, icons, statues, rosaries, dishware, and other works of art can be paid for by check through a hole in the wall. As the sisters don’t speak, we were left to wonder around (<–that was a slip but a nice one) on our own. It was magical. Cynthia, who’s lived in Livingston Manor since 2005, only learned of the monastery this year when an airbnb guest wanted to visit. It really is a must see. They also have guest hermitages for about $75/night. Find out more about it here at PHATMASS.com (?). The unexpected visit here made the trip. One of those very human experiences you don’t expect but cherish when it comes.

US7All week I’d known a woman and her daughter would arrive on Friday, toward the end of my stay, as would Cynthia’s son. Thursday, Cynthia told me that the woman was also a yoga teacher from NYC. Maybe I knew her?

I explained that there are thousands of yoga teachers in NYC, that it was unlikely.

Friday morning, Cynthia told me the guest’s name is Lori, “L-O-R-I,” she spelled.

Hmmm. I emailed my teacher.

“Omg! Are you with Cynthia through airbnb?!!! Will you still be there when we get there tonite? That would be SO great!” she replied back.

It was.

 

Some more photos from Livingston Manor for your viewing pleasure:

Cynthia selecting fresh trout at Main Street Market

Cynthia selecting fresh trout at Main Street Market

 

Pickle selection at Peck's Market

Pickle selection at Peck’s Market

 

House in town with lots of good stuff on porch

House in town with lots of good stuff on porch

 

Lori & Ruby, Hanging out on Main Street

Lori & Ruby, Hanging out on Main Street

non-cheesy yoga = awesome

Or, How to Talk Intelligently About Yoga

bod050Is yoga spiritual? Is yoga religion? Is yoga science? What is yoga? These questions matter to me because it affects how I relate to students. I teach yoga in a university gym largely because I have the autonomy to do what I want, as I’ve yet to find a like-minded studio in NYC (great teachers, yes, but they all seem to be pretty autonomous as well). At Columbia, I’m not pressured to teach a certain way. For example, I don’t chant because most Columbia students aren’t comfortable with it. In fact, it can take them a few weeks to exhale with a sigh at the end of class (but once they do!..). The spirit is in the breath. Because I find that the subtler aspects of yoga happen through the breath and focus rather than coaching (they certainly don’t happen on command), I don’t have a vocabulary for them. Wooey juicy-KrishnaLove-healing-chakra babble just does not describe my experience of the energetic experience of yoga. It’s not that I don’t believe. Genny Kapuler once explained that she doesn’t talk about the chakras much because there are entire libraries written about them. She doesn’t feel her knowledge, acquired in over thirty years as an Iyengar teacher, is adequate to teach them well. To boil down the fourth chakra to “My heart chakra was stuck so I really had trouble finding the right guy. But I took a workshop and could feel it open. I’m so excited about the possibilities!” is wanting, at best. I’m very hesitant to talk about energetic and emotional experiences in yoga not only because I don’t have the words, but because it’s important that we speak intelligently. Yoga practice is powerful and immediate. When energy and spirituality is discussed flippantly, it’s too easy to be thrown out as New Age nonsense. Horton conveys a “weirder experience” of yoga in her book Yoga PhD:

One day, during a deep hip opener (Pigeon pose, for those who know it), I had an intense, PTSD-like flashback of an emergency C-section that I’d undergone eight years previously. Holding the pose, laying forward with one leg bent under my torso, the other extended straight back behind me, eyes closed, breathing deeply, feeling inside, and suddenly, BOOM. I could see the operating room – smell it, even. It was intense, enveloping, vivid, real. But – and this is the crucial thing – it was not overwhelming. I was able to psychically revisit what had been a highly traumatic experience without panic or pain. On the contrary, I felt solidly anchored in that abiding, compassionate center that’s often called “witness consciousness”: that is, the part of the mind that is capable of staying calmly present in any storm.

(Yoga PhD, p. 9.)

This story is good because she communicates effectively. We all hold. And we all resist letting that go. What does that even mean, let go? It’s become a platitude. But when it means something, it’s a tricky thing. Here Horton “let go.” She wasn’t told to let go. She wasn’t looking to let go (at least not in that moment). But she did. I hold. In my chest and upper back, especially, and my lower right pelvis/hip. Sometimes I feel close to it—the memory, the energy, the feeling—whatever it is. But I’m afraid, frankly, to be overwhelmed by the pain of it. I remember saying long before yoga (my late teens, probably), that if something has been repressed to the unconscious, there’s probably a good reason for it. Let it be. That witness consciousness can take over in the experience is all very nice, but not everyone’s pain is as clinical as a C-section and this experience far more cleansed and tidy than the reality for many. In fact, according to neuroscientists like van der Kolk, such removed experience “psychically revisited” may not even help, as the healing is in processing the held, unfelt pain, rather than watching from a dissociated state. Unfortunately, facing and feeling this isn’t always as proper and removed as Horton suggests. This doesn’t mean we don’t have the strength to do it—simply that it might not be so sterile and detached as to keep a school marm comfortable.

A student wrote on an evaluation this semester “Non-cheesy Yoga = Awesome.” It’s true. Personally, I find it hard to focus, much less be open, if someone is telling me to let my shoulder blades kiss, or to enjoy a juicy hip opener. I also find it hard when someone is barking at me to open my chest. “Hey! Heartache! Be gentle!” I silently cry. This is where a personal practice can create a space you can explore in, taking time in poses when you feel something going on there, something that can be difficult in a class. It is hard, as a teacher, to make a space for this experience, especially in a gym-type environment. But the possibility is there. Horton:

When I first started practicing yoga, the idea that its psychological benefits could be just as, if not more beneficial than its physical ones wouldn’t have made any sense to me. It’s funny looking back. Because today, I take it for granted that one of the things I cherish most about my practice is that it weaves an organic process of psychologically healing and growth into my everyday life.

(Yoga PhD, p. 61.)

Because this is true for many practitioners, it’s time to work on my vocabulary for, and comfort with, talking about this aspect of yoga.

the yoga diet

yellerMany yogis are obsessed with their diets. It stands to reason. We are pressured to look a certain way, and the majority of food on offer is not only fattening and unhealthy, but not really even food. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that banks on telling us how to eat for health, though that is usually a marketing euphemism for thin. So, figuring out what is actually good for you can be difficult.

We are neurotic about what we eat. This is why I don’t have much to say about yoga and diet. Eat what you want. If you really pay attention to what that is, after a few chocolate croissants you will likely discover that you want food. Real food. Michael Pollan has a number of rules around this idea (indeed, a whole book). Those of most interest to me are (paraphrased):

  1. Don’t eat food your great grandparents wouldn’t recognize. My addendum: unless it’s from a different culture.
  2. Don’t eat food products with more than five ingredients.
  3. Don’t eat foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce.
  4. Eat as simply and locally as possible.

That’s it. That’s all you need. “But what about the traditional yogic diet?” you cry! Yes, it’s vegetarian, with dairy. There are all sorts of ideas about tamasic and rajasic foods, and people become quite obsessed. I know. I’ve been there. Garlic and onions? Stimulating! Bad. Coconut? Unfolds love and compassion! (I just learned that now.) Good. Meat? Violent! Very bad. Mung beans? Cleansing and light. Very very good.

While it’s important to be aware of what you eat, and what makes you feel good and bad, it’s a problem when people are overly preoccupied with what should and shouldn’t be eaten. It is not healthy. It is not social. The desire to control what is eaten seems like an unconscious attempt to control life itself, or at least have control over something. There is also a desire to nurture, or reject nurturance, through the foods we eat (or don’t). Sweet, rich foods can be soothing. It can be difficult to understand what we really need and when. (For excellent books on eating, emotions, and intimacy, read Geneen Roth.)

This is where the yoga comes in. When you pay attention to your body, if only during your yoga class a few times a week, you begin to learn how you feel. And once you begin to connect to how you feel, you understand when you are hungry, and even what you really need to eat. Protein. Salad. Pork chops. Whatever. You might notice that you want chocolate to avoid a feeling you have. Even if you still eat the chocolate, you know what you’re doing. You might notice that a few blocks of chocolate do better than a few bars. A few bites of ice cream instead of a few cones. You know that feeling gross for a day is not worth a gallon of comfort now. Your body tells you, not your control freak ego. The more you get to know your body, the less you think about food. This was my experience. And that yoga has its own way of nurturing.

Yes, I’ve tried all sorts of food crazes. I studied nutrition. I was a vegetarian for four years. I had so little energy I thought there was something wrong with me. While a vegetarian diet is unquestionably best for our furry friends and best for the planet, I discovered I need to eat meat a few times a month. (Did you know the Dalai Lama eats meat?) My iron levels demand it. I also do well with protein and fat. If I eat too much carbohydrate, I feel heavy and sleepy. That’s my body. I have a vegetarian friend who can eat salad and beans and be full of energy. I can’t. But that’s what works for me. Bodies vary greatly in what they need. Maybe it’s ethnic, maybe it’s genetic. It’s probably many factors that don’t really need to be teased out.

Svadhyaya, or self study, is a major part of yoga practice. It is not obsessive, compulsive or product oriented. It is largely quiet and observational. If you practice and pay attention you can tune in to how you feel and tune out all the idiotic food trends (is any community more susceptible than ours? I’m sorry, a seed will not save you). When this happens, food can be fun and an anxiety-free joy.

yoga practice in class and out

oldsite

This post is part of an integration of the info on the first yoga site I made for students back in 2007, as I’ll be taking it down soon. Enjoy!

Q: Is there a minimum amount of time that you should practice? Is it worth practicing 10 minutes if that’s all the time you have?    –M.M.

M.M.— This is a difficult question. The standby, “it depends on you, your needs, goals, and schedule” is true, but also frustrating, especially if you are new to yoga and just want some steadfast answers.

Ten minutes is enough to make a difference, believe it or not. If I have to squeeze in a bare minimum, I do a:
2-minute Uttanasana (standing forward bend)
2-minute Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog)
2-minute Sirsasana (headstand, or substitute L-pose, dolphin, handstand or your favorite)
2-minute Sarvangasana (shoulderstand)
2-minute Savasana (relaxation pose)

Though it’s tempting, don’t skip the Savasana. It is the most important pose.

If you have only 5 minutes, or even 2, take the time to do a forward bend or down dog, and gently bring yourself back to the breath each time you stray. These few moments can shift your awareness, and it may open up time for more. This is especially true when you feel like you don’t have time!

Q: Would it be better to practice twice a week for an hour instead of doing once a week for an hour and a half?    –M.M.

Yes. An hour-and-a-half class is great, but if you don’t practice more at home, one hour, twice a week is better.

Q: How do I find the discipline and inspiration to make my home practice an every day occurrence?    –B.J.

One teacher told me that if you want to change your habitual patterns, and therein your life, simply dedicate 5 minutes a day to something you love and believe in. This can be yoga, meditation, drawing, singing—whatever it is that lights you up. Give yourself to it fully for those 5 minutes and do it everyday (not 5m. today, 0m. tomorrow, and 15m. the next), no matter what comes up. We humans are so fond of our fixed ways that we will create resistance to even this small act of awareness. Somehow, we can watch that and move past it, and those 5 minutes blossom into something much larger.

Q: I’ve begun to wonder a little bit (and this is strictly based upon my own idiosyncrasies) what a yoga class would be like conducted in silence. Is it possible to do? Is it done? I think that listening is a very good practice but I worry about how much privilege we give to the voice. What does yogic philosophy say about this?    –R.W.J.C.

Mysore-style Ashtanga is more or less conducted in silence, but for the Ujjayi breathing that fills the room. The teacher does walk around and make individual corrections (using voice and touch), but it’s directed to one person rather than the entire room.

Yogic philosophy has much to say about sound as well as voice, which can be used for creating sacred sound, or a scattered, unfocused state of mind, and everything in between. Read the Upanisads if you are interested. The Olivelle translation is direct and free from extensive figurative translation.


C: Yes, I have a personal practice. I sort of weave yoga into my day every day…I can’t seem to help it.    –R.W.J.C.

Excellent, R. That made me grin. Let’s hope we all get there—I must admit there are days I’d rather just stay in bed and read.

to close, a short video of John Cleese on the benefits of laughing yoga.

tradition: ashtanga, vinyasa & 8-limbs lite™

Mysore Practice at Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana

Mysore Practice at Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana

The yoga history thread is on hold as I’ve picked up too many books on the subject to continue until they’re parsed. Much has been published since I first read up on it ten years back. If you must read something now I suggest Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India. For a break, I’ll address a subject that’s come up a few times this year, that of how Hatha Yoga traditions should change.

Sometimes I explain that a way of doing an asana is a more traditional form of the pose, for example parivrtta parsvakonasana with the heel down, unbound. By “traditional” I mean over fifty years old, usually in the manner of Ashtanga or Iyengar.

There are arguments within these yoga communities about how the lineages should evolve, because as we hopefully know, most of the asanas we practice are dynamic creations of the modern era, rather than an unchanging set of postures created in the Indus Valley way back B.C.E. As Richard Rosen admonishes in his book Original Yoga, “You may have heard or read somewhere that yoga is five thousand years old, a number that’s continually cited by people who should know better, since there’s not a shred of evidence to back it up.”

Exactly.

Both Ashtanga and Iyengar are somewhat regimented practices that tend to attract intense and dedicated practitioners. While Iyengar is strict about his teachers following his method, e.g. one can’t engage in Iyengar teacher training if she doesn’t commit to teaching only Iyengar, I’ll focus this piece on Ashtanga because that’s what I practice and pay more attention to at present.

While I admit to heretic tendencies, I lean toward traditionalism when it comes to following a living lineage. One of the many things I love about ashtanga is that I know what I’m getting. I trust the wisdom of the asanas and sequences that come from Krishnamacharya, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Sharath. I can walk into a Mysore room from Rio to Seoul and know what I’ll get. We have a common language.

There are some major criticisms of ashtanga. It’s dangerous and unforgiving. It’s monotonous. It’s not for everyone. These are leveled from inside and outside the community. Several friends forwarded me a piece by Matthew Sweeney earlier this year called The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga, which is an interesting piece, and I agree with most of it, except what we would call Ashtanga and the Ashtanga method, and who exactly should be evolving the practice. And, perhaps, on what Yoga inherently is. Sweeney argues, “Ashtanga Yoga does not suit everybody. It is not possible to teach it to everyone, despite what some teachers may say. If you consider the truth of that, therefore, it is a responsibility as a teacher to try to learn what you need to be able to teach anyone. Otherwise it is not Yoga, and too limited.”

I find the idea that any kind of yoga (much less Ashtanga) should be suited to everyone ridiculous, as well as the argument that a teacher should aim to teach every population at large. Otherwise it is not Yoga? By what definition? Hatha Yoga was developed by a fringe ascetic population, and definitely not available to or desired by everyone, and the Yoga of Patanjali’s Sutras was aimed at and permitted for the Brahman (highest) class alone.

AYS-2If you’re bored of teaching Ashtanga sequences and want to shake up the method and the type of [aggro!] students you attract, do it. But when you’re adding moon salutes and yin yoga into the same practice, it’s no longer Ashtanga. It may be incredibly valuable, but it’s now vinaysa, or moon unit yoga, or even Reform Ashtanga. But it’s not Ashtanga. That on some level Sweeney agrees is obvious here: “For me it is simply a matter of timing, of when it is appropriate to introduce either the tradition – the Intermediate Series, for example, or an alternative such as Vinyasa Krama, or Yin Yoga or meditation.” Exactly. Vinyasa Krama and Yin Yoga are not the Ashtanga tradition, but traditions of their own.

Sweeney also argues:

In terms of human evolution and holistic development, sooner or later any technique or tradition you might adhere to becomes limiting, and a lessening of your full potential. For you to embrace a true spiritual perspective, you will need to move beyond a single method or one dimensional view.

Let’s break this down. First, to argue that Ashtanga (or Iyengar, or Yin Yoga, or Zen, or whatever) is “a one dimensional view” because it is a single method, is simplistic and incorrect. Further, to create a patchwork of practices sooner rather than later is tantamount to disaster, because as soon as things become a little bit difficult, uncomfortable, or boring, you will continue to seek distraction elsewhere, most likely at the moment you were starting to get somewhere. This is why most mature spiritual teachers and traditions advise making a commitment to one practice. For a long time. This is not to say that we as practitioners discount other practices or perspectives, but we know temptation when we see it. That said, when a certain level of mastery has been attained, after years and years of practice, it’s very helpful to see what other traditions can offer your own.

Sweeney finds it:

…curious that I am one of the few traditional Ashtanga teachers to actively embrace different sequences and encourage many students to practice them – without abandoning the standard Ashtanga.  Alternative sequences can enhance the Ashtanga method without altering or threatening its form and function. Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day.

As I understand it, the holders of the lineage, first P. Jois and now Sharath, have explicitly asked teachers not to change up the sequences. So, it’s not so curious as to why most teachers don’t. While I don’t hold the sequences sacred, I’ve taken enough bad vinyasa classes to know the genius of good asana sequences. I question the suggestion we all change them up at whim. At the end of the day, a good asana sequence is a rare thing, and the Ashtanga series are integral to the Ashtanga method. Altering them is a threat because if “It is up to each of us to work out what the advantages and disadvantages are,” then before you know it, anyone teaching anything can and will call themselves Ashtanga. And where does that leave us? With another vinyasa practice, now called Ashtanga, whatever that means to each of those who’ve redefined it.

And that, I suppose, is my real issue. Again, Sweeney:

I use alternative sequencing to aid and enhance the Ashtanga practice rather than to replace it entirely. It is all about what is appropriate and practical, rather than blind faith, dogma, or just doing random stuff because I feel like it – though honestly, sometimes the latter can be really useful.

So, we’re back to the alternatives being alternatives to Ashtanga rather than being Ashtanga, and I’m fine with this. While Sweeney likely has the wisdom and experience to change things up for the better of his students, some 23 year old who just finished a weekend workshop in Ashtanga may well not. But he’s certified! Do I really want to walk into his class and learn his new variations on secondary series? Do I want him teaching others this brave, new Ashtanga? No. Beyond no.

b10009

Poster care of Ashtanga.com

This is why Ashtanga is a lineage trad and vinyasa is not. Yes, the method should change, but that change comes from the holder of the tradition, which is at present, Sharath.

If we want to change up the series, perhaps we should call what we’re doing Reform Ashtanga. If we want to make it “accessible” to those who, in reality, don’t want to make the commitment that the Ashtanga method requires, perhaps we should call it YogaWithBenefits. If we want to break down the sequences and asanas so they can be taught by teachers who have never had a Mysore practice and students who don’t even know what that is (they’re out there, and certified as Ashtanga teachers by YA to boot), perhaps we should call it 8-Limbs Lite™. There is probably a lot of value in all of this. But it is not Ashtanga-Vinyasa Yoga.  I have no problem with changing things up, I just want to know what I’m getting. And that’s really the biggest problem with vinyasa yoga now. You really have no idea.

The Ashtanga method is impressive in part because of just what is accessible to someone who makes the commitment to Mysore six days a week. I once thought that Ashtanga was not for everyone, and I still do. I don’t believe that anything, aside from clean air and water, is for everyone. But I believe it’s available to far more practitioners than I did before I practiced it. And that is part of the beauty of Mysore Ashtanga. When it is watered down, it is lost.

It’s difficult to make this rigorous commitment, and it might not be possible for most householders. Maybe we do need a more accessible, codified Reform Ashtanga or 8-limbs lite™. But, please, call it what it is.

I wish Sweeney had been a little more clear on whether he thinks that Ashtanga + yin sequencing (etc) is still Ashtanga—in some places it seems yes, in others no. I also wish that he’d put his last paragraph first, as maybe we agreed all along:

It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it? Are you closer to the traditional centre, but do you deny the importance of those who change, explore and adapt? Or are you closer to the edge, finding new ways and expanding your horizons, but you find it hard to accept the strength and clarity of those closer to the centre? Embrace all of it and you embrace your full potential.

Other than the last line coming off like a weird platitude, and that I’m confused by the spectrum-both-ends-centre-edge-dichotomy metaphor, I agree. I practice Ashtanga in the morning and meditation, yin and restorative later in the day. I teach vinyasa, which is a little bit of everything I practice. I quite like it that way. It is important to be clear about what things are, and what we, as teachers, offer. It’s also important to respect the wishes of lineage holders as best we can, even if that means leaving the lineage. It is lovely to have lineage traditions, even if only as a point of reference. It’s equally important to have adapters and pioneers. But if we aren’t clear about which is which, in today’s yogamarket, it becomes impossible to discern.

stretching, science, & the wisdom of ‘boring’ yoga asana sequencing

Kg_2004-08-18_Oomoot_070In the last few years, it’s come to light that static stretching isn’t a great thing before activities requiring muscle power. Most recently the New York Times reported researchers have discovered stretching is bad. The article mentions only once that static stretching, as opposed to dynamic stretching, is problematic. The rest of the article states time and again that stretching is bad. A skimmer might well come away with the idea she should avoid all stretching at all times. But static stretching is only problematic before you weight lift or row or do some other arduous activity. What’s with the dodgy reporting, NYT?

Static stretching involves holding the muscles in a stretch for a long time. Dynamic stretching stretches the muscles while moving, e.g. butt kicks, leg lifts, walking lunges, and these dynamic toe touches at right. Or, Surya Namaskara, sun salutations.

When I first read this a few years ago (my masters is in health, so I try to keep up), I couldn’t help but observe this is exactly what we do in ashtanga, and exactly how I sequence my vinyasa classes. Kind of like the research that revealed exercise before breakfast is better for weight loss. Yogis knew that. While I’m all for well-conducted and well-reported research (difficult and thus rare when involving human behavior), I strongly reject the notion that empirical evidence is the only valuable knowledge. Or as Jon Kabat-Zinn (PhD in MCB from MIT) said, “Oh my god. There is an entirely different way of knowing. Why didn’t they tell us this in kindergarten? An entirely different way of knowing.” In other words, something doesn’t have to be “science” to be valuable. But I’ll rant about that and the “Science of Yoga/Yoga Science” meme another day.

Occasionally I hear students complain about boring sequencing. I try to avoid condescending comments like, “If you are bored in your yoga practice, you are missing the point. You will never know anything about your mind until it has been bored.” If you aren’t doing yoga to learn about your mind, that’s fine. Either deal with the boredom anyway or find another teacher who likes to “change things up.”

yogaUPd

Dynamic Stretching!

I do Ashtanga Yoga. This practice involves doing the same set of postures in the same order six days a week for years until they are mastered to the extent that one can move on. That you, my student, have to do pranayama followed by 5 Surya Namaskara As and Bs once or twice a week really gets no sympathy in these quarters.

After sun salutations come standing postures (sometimes within freestyle sun salutations), then back bends, then seated forward bends, sometimes seated twists, then closing inversions, then supine spinal twists, followed by pranayama and savasana. That is my recipe. It is neither secret nor trademarked. It is a combination of ashtanga sequencing and basic Integral Yoga sequencing, as my students are not ashtangis (most don’t practice more than a few times a week), and I am not an ashtanga teacher.

Occasionally I teach more than one pose in succession on each side, but if I do, they are usually all standing asana. None of this standing, bending, sitting, reclining on one side of the body, then back up to stand for the other side. It’s just not right. Why?

Well, for one thing, as the NYT tells us, static stretching before using the muscles strenuously is not a good idea. It weakens them in the short term. For example: lying on the floor for ten minutes in hip openers and quad stretches then hoisting back up for a standing sequence culminating in Svarga Dvidasana (Bird of Paradise). It’s hell on the hips and quads. You might not notice this at age 22, or if you lean toward strength over flexibility, but the rest of us do.

More traditional sequencing understands this (by traditional, I mean it’s been around more than fifty years. Not 5,000. Fifty). How do we begin class? At least ten Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations). What are Sun Salutations? Dynamic stretching. Followed by standing poses and back bends (usually on the abdomen), which are the most strenuous and strengthening for the muscles, and as the research of the last few years indicates, should not be done after static stretching. Finally, seated forward bends, and other supine (lying around) asana, which we hold for a minute or two. These are static stretches, and we do them last.

armCirc

Mabel Todd’s The Thinking Body, 1937

At a party recently, I overheard one yoga instructor telling another, “Yeah, she has really creative sequencing.” They teach in another tradition, which apparently values funky choreography and changing things up. This tradition is in the hatha-vinyasa family, so it can be very confusing to the dabbling practitioner. You can really never be sure what you’re going to get in such classes, as my classes, too, are hatha-vinyasa. This is why it’s a good idea to find one tradition and one or two teachers and stay there. While funky sequencing can certainly be fun, I’ve found that at best, it isn’t much different than a work out and at worst, my muscles are ruined for days or I feel jacked up from lack of calming asana toward the finish.

More important than stretching trends are the energetic properties of the asanas. Wha? I usually spare you such discourse, but not today. Moving around has a certain effect on the body-mind. As do standing asanas, backbends, forward bends, and so on. Good sequencing is organized with this in mind. A gross simplification: Standing poses ground, energize, and focus the body-mind. Back bends stimulate and energize. Forward bends calm and soothe. Inversions, once mastered, are both stimulating and soothing. Hopefully you get the idea. It’s an important one.

A related aside: If you wonder if you should workout before or after yoga, the answer is before. Apply lessons learned above.

adho mukha svanasana from a master

misskitty
Downward Facing Dog. Post nap.

how to work toward padmasana: lotus pose

NewYork_02-12-11_YogaAnastasia_094So you want to do padmasana. Because like headstand, lotus pose is an asana that comes to mind when people think of yoga. And for good reason. It’s one of the fifteen poses mentioned in the 15th century text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which makes it one of the few asanas with a history. There is no shortage of stock photos of blissed out ladies sitting in lotus whilst meditating on the beach. And you want that. I must warn that while I’m something of a beachcomber, I have never once come across such a lady in a natural habitat. Or gentleman. Perhaps with a little work we can change that.

But my knees!

While padmasana can injure the knees and ankles, the knees aren’t the problem, unless you’ve already forced yourself into the position and hurt them. It’s the hips. Lotus requires a dramatic external rotation of the hip joints, and this is easier for some bodies than others. Some hip joints are happier in external rotation, and others internal rotation (e.g. virasana). It’s rare that a body is equally happy in both.

My hips seem externally rotated at the joint themselves, to the point that my internal rotation is laughable. I have to accept that atri-mu-pand work with it. Triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana is easily my worst pose in primary series, and it’s easy for me to forget that while it’s still bad, it wasn’t that long ago I couldn’t bind without falling on my side. I had to ground my elbows on the floor by my extended leg to keep upright. With practice, I eventually learned to stay upright and bind. I say this because there are limitations and there are gifts. External hip rotation is easy for me. I have no memory of ever not being able to do lotus easily. If that is not the case for you, go slowly and be patient with yourself, as I must in internal hip rotations. If you practice daily, you don’t even notice the progress. But it eventually happens.

How to Get the Hip Flexibility Needed for Padmasana

Most of the Padmasana how to’s out there (e.g. image below left) are helpful only if you need some help going into the pose, but can pretty much do it. If you can’t do it, they are only frustrating. What you need help with is opening the hips. Folding your legs properly just isn’t the issue. Yet.

a_28Joints aside, the biggest culprit in difficult external hip rotation are tight piriformis muscles. This happens when you sit at a desk all day. Your gluts get lazy and your hip flexors fierce (also why you hate Utthan Pristhasana, aka lizard, but we’ll talk about that another day). This training article has an excellent overview and includes some exercises for external hip rotation.

The very best way to get yourself into padmasana shape? It’s the answer I give to 97% of questions. Practice frequently. Like headstand, you don’t have to do specific poses day after day to prepare yourself for lotus. A well-rounded class will open your hips. I include poses like Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle), Trikonasana (Triangle), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), Ardha Matsyandrasana (Seated Twist), and Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon) in every class so that your hips are regularly coaxed into flexibility.

Equally important, if padmasana is a goal: Sit in ardha padmasana (half lotus) at your desk as often as you can. This will not only support your spine better than sitting with your feet on the floor, it will prepare you for full lotus. I’m writing this from a friend’s place, sitting in a fancy chair. But I’m much more comfortable at home, where I sit at my desk cross-legged on a flat, wooden kitchen chair with a pillow for lumbar support. This ergo-dynamic contraption I’m on now is all contoured out of proportion to a lotus seat, and the arms get in the way of my feet. I’m pretty much just squashed in, as I find it impossible to sit upright with my feet on the floor. I slouch. So get your feet up and cross your legs. When that’s tolerable for an hour or so at a time, move into half lotus (with one foot up on the hip instead of two) for as long as possible. Sitting like this daily will bring you to full padmasana much faster than just practicing in class.

Benefits of Padmasana
mushinpa

couldn’t find image credit on this one

Once you’re comfortable (and that could take years), lotus is incredibly supportive of the spine and your posture, because the pelvis sits very upright. It stretches the hips, knees and ankles. It’s also said to calm the brain and nervous system, stimulate abdominal organs, soothe menstrual cramps and sciatica, and if done during pregnancy, ease childbirth. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it also destroys all disease and awakens kundalini. And like the gentleman in the photo, you will become hairless. Maybe.

Personal Note

When I started doing lotus daily, my shins felt as if they were grinding into one another. It was painful. Why I cannot explain, but with daily practice, it just went away. Because I practice ashtanga, I always draw the right leg up first. If I draw up the left side first, I have the grinding pain. I imagine I’d have to do left side first every day to even this out. Perhaps it’s some remaining tightness in the hips that causes the sharp bones to press to firmly together, which eventually eases. Regardless, know that it will go away with regular practice.

how often should I practice yoga?

Why not everyday? Because yoga is not my life, you say? Oh. Okay then. The answer varies.

Yoga? But I’m Not Flexible (Beginners)

When I first practiced yoga, it was very sporadic. Probably not even once a week. Are there any benefits to practicing once in awhile? Yes. Most people feel good during or after yoga, if not both. This goodness can help a person decide to do more yoga. Long term benefits to sporadic practice? Probably not.

Some types of yoga, like ashtanga, require practice at least four days a week, beginners included. But if you are totally new to yoga, your ashtanga practice will only be about 20 minutes long. Practicing sporadically will only frustrate you. In fact, any highly vigorous (or heated) yoga done sporadically is going to leave you sore (or nauseous) and wondering if it’s right for you.

NewYork_2010-12-29_CellSnaps_094If you are still at the dappling stage, I recommend a basics class in a gentler style. You can find this in classes called or studios that offer, for example, Integral Yoga, Kripalu Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Gentle Yoga, Hatha Yoga, and Viniyoga. There’s less chance of strain or injury, and it will give you the taste and foundation you need to do more. It is an untruth that yoga is for flexible people. It increases strength and flexibility, but that’s not the point.

An aside: when you meet a yoga teacher in a non-yogic situation, please do not announce your inflexibility to him. I mean, think about that for a moment. Really. (Up next, an essay about what not to say to yoga teachers in social settings.)

I Like Yoga, But I’m Really Busy (Advanced Beginners)

Okay, then once a week. But keep with a basic style, or Iyengar. I have students who practice only once a week, and while there is some minor progress in their asana, they are almost starting from square one each week. Twice a week is better. I do see marked improvements in my undergrads, who meet twice as week over a semester. Also, they are spring chickens and their bodies are quick to learn. My older students, even mid-20s, make less progress at that frequency.

Should I Be Doing Headstand Soon? When Can I do Headstand? (Intermediate)

To see real, long term benefits of yoga, I find you need to practice 3 times a week, minimum. It’s difficult to meet your body and notice what is going on if you practice less often. Practice does not have to be a 90-minute class. It can be 15 minutes of practice at home or in an office. A few sequences are posted here. These are meant to supplement classes, not replace your teacher. Yoga is best learned directly from a teacher, not videos, books, blogs, or podcasts. They can help supplement your practice until you’re ready to practice on your own without them (which is about now, at the intermediate level). If you practice three times a week, you will start to notice a difference in your body, your yoga, and hopefully your mind. And get over headstand. It doesn’t matter.

NewYork_2011-05-30_YogaAnastasia_012Yoga Dilettante! (Intermediate-Advanced)

You practice 5-7 days a week. No less. Please understand that advanced yoga is not back flips or contortions. It could be 60 minutes of ardha padmasana. This frequency is open to any level, though beginners should be cautioned against an over-zealousness that leads to burnout. If you practice this often, you will progress. You will also suffer ego trips and spiritual materialism, but that’s part of the practice. Notice and cut it out. No one’s style of yoga is the best style of yoga, and because you’ve dedicated over ten hours a week to your mat doesn’t mean you’re a better yogi than someone who’s never seen a mat. Nor are you superior because you don’t go in for an impressive asana practice but sure like to meditate.

Committing to something like an ashtanga practice is a major time commitment, but with that practice “all is coming,” as K. Patabhi Jois liked to say. The one thing that truly amazes me about ashtanga is what dedication and commitment can bring. This is true of any practice. Have fun.

 

basic pranayama for beginners : प्राणायाम

Dear Students,

iyengar breathPranayama is the key to your practice. The breath is it. I often say “yoga and meditation” because in the West, yoga is considered to be something apart from meditation. It is not. Likewise, pranayama is no less yoga than asana (physical postures). The are all parts of a larger whole.

If you are only interested in yoga for exercise purposes, fine. As a friend says, “Diet yoga is probably better than nothing.” Even so, breath work is good for your body, metabolism, and stress levels. I really can’t recommend it enough.

The first type of yoga I started doing regularly was at Integral in NYC. The sequencing of their level one class is simple, straightforward and brilliant. I was never captivated by their more advanced levels in the same way, so I moved on. But no other style I tried included much pranayama, with the exception of Genny Kapuler (an amazing teacher for beginners and advanced practitioners alike. No one interested in yoga should pass through NYC without trying her class), who often includes it in asana class, as well as teaching a class devoted to pranayama every Monday. I began to notice in funky, free-for-all vinyasa classes that I had fun during and felt good immediately after, but the feeling didn’t stay with me long. It wasn’t much different than working out. Pranayama made the difference. The most pranayama you’ll get in popular yoga classes is some kapalabhati, which is great, but certainly not the most relaxing. And while you may want more fire from the skull shining breath (kapalabhati), I see your shoulders. You really could use some deep breaths.

pranayamaI keep pranayama very simple, partly in hopes that the practices will become second nature to you and you’ll do them on your own. If you want an hour and a half of pranayama, go to Genny’s. There are very deep and complicated practices, some known for destabilizing an unprepared mind. These aren’t on the menu. You should learn pranayama with a teacher, and then practice on your own. The most basic practice I teach is an antar kumbhaka, or breath retention on inhalation.

Antar Kumbhaka for Beginners

  • Sit or lie comfortably with an open chest. Once you’re accustomed to this breath, you can do it standing or even upside down.
  • Feel your breath. Notice where it is, how it feels, and how you feel. Then return your attention back to the breath.
  • Put your tongue at the back of your upper teeth, where it hits the gum. Keep it there for the entire practice.
  • Inhale through your nose to the top of your chest for 4 counts. Hold your breath for 7 counts. Exhale through your mouth, around your tongue, for 8 counts.
  • Repeat up to 4 times. Once accustomed to it, you can repeat up to 8 times. Do this practice as much as you like. If you do it twice a day, you will transform. (Haha. Just kidding. You will feel better though.)

This breath is very soothing. I sometimes do it once at the beginning of savasana, to settle in. It can also be done when you feel on edge, before you go to sleep, before you eat, before an interview, and so on. It’s more effective in these situations if you practice it frequently, but it’s always worth a try.

 

yoga etiquette 201

etiq2Yoga Etiquette 101 covers the basics of getting to the mat. This will get you through class and out the door. Keep in mind that it’s not the end of the world if you transgress once in awhile. It happens to everyone. But do avoid making these things a habit.

Try Not to Be Territorial About Your Space
This is difficult for most of us, myself included. While I am not attached to a particular space in a class, I do really like to be very close to the radiator and away from drafts. I also really dislike having things in my face, e.g. blankets, blocks, feet. I watch myself want to freak out when someone puts them at the front of my mat. It is, however, bad form to think you own 12 square feet of the studio, and to declare to others in the locker room that the class was ruined for you because some unknowing soul practiced in your space. It is also bad form to shoot that person anger beams throughout the class. Like the subway etiquette artist said, “It’s crazy this even needs to be mentioned.” It is unattractive to make faces when someone puts his mat down closer than you’d like. If you arrive on time but there’s no space left, ask the teacher where you should go. If he points out a space, those around it will be less salty about moving for you.

Avoid Setting Your Mat On Top of Someone Else
That said, don’t plunk down on top of someone else, or put your props in their space. When you set up, imagine how you’d feel if you were in the nearby spaces, and set up accordingly. And, please, please, please do not put your socks within five feet of anyone else. Gross.

green1Once Class Has Begun, Don’t Leave Unless It’s Incredibly Important
This means don’t leave to text, take a call, use the restroom, or because things are too hard. If you have to go, you have to go. But do you? This is for all the same reasons you wouldn’t want to come late (see last article).

Don’t Make Strange Noises
There is occasionally a student who feels the need to make lots of noise. It is wildly annoying. Don’t sigh dramatically or repeatedly unless the instructor has suggested it. Or breathe like a turbo engine. I took a led ashtanga class near a guy who was taking such bizarre, convulsive breaths that I feared he was ill. He was not. The ummm’ers and ahhhh’ers are irritating to everyone. It seems more like a bid for attention than something that occurs spontaneously. Please. Knock it off.

Respect the Teacher
Ann Pizer explains it well: “When you enter a yoga class, you sign on to respect the teacher for the next hour and a half. You may discover halfway through the class that you don’t care for this teacher, style, or hour of the day. But you still should continue with the class, follow the teacher’s instructions, take your Savasana, and chalk it up to experience.”

Keep Variations Reasonable
In her take on Yoga Etiquette, Farnoosh Brock says: “Respecting your yoga teacher comes in many forms. The easiest one is following the poses or a modified version of them. I would not say this if I had not witnessed it many times. Do not do your own series in the middle of a guided class if you are bored or uninterested in the current pose. Finish the class and choose another teacher but during the class, respect the teacher enough to follow instructions and do so with an open mind.” We have all felt trapped in a class at one time or another, and we have all needed to modify a pose or a sequence. There is an occasional student who wants to show everyone how much she knows by doing her own thing at her own pace. Not only does it disrupt the class and confuse other students, it generates a fair amount of eye rolling from others. I do have some advanced students who will practice in the back, and add a scorpion or split at an appropriate time. But these are students I know and have relationships with, and I am sure they know what they’re doing. If you aren’t sure about if your variations will be disruptive, ask the teacher.

Don’t Leave Early
It is disturbing for the same reasons as arriving late and coming and going, especially in savasana when people are trying to relax.

Don’t Ogle or Hit On Other Students or the Teacher
In the name of research, I just read a number of hideous pieces on how to hit on someone in your yoga class. Ugh. It is nice to imagine a space free from cell phones and pickups lines, but perhaps I am naive. I had a student disappear for awhile only to return and tell me that her boyfriend wouldn’t let her take class because he didn’t want guys looking at her bum. Who knew? I guess the New York Times (the end of that article is particularly alarming) and The Inappropriate Yoga Guy (above). Miss Wingman has a whole essay on how to pick up women at yoga. Among other pointers: “Don’t be too good at it. If we wanted to date a guy who was Gumby-flexible or could hold a difficult pose indefinitely, we’d date a principal dancer in the New York City Ballet. There’s a difference between being open-minded enough to try yoga, and chipping away at your masculinity. Walk that line at your own risk.” Seriously? Who knew that flexibility was emasculating? Right Bruce Lee? Putin? Baryshnikov?

While a fan of romance, I am against hitting on someone in class, especially if you just want sex. That said, if you develop a crush, see where it goes over time and perhaps strike up a conversation leaving the studio. Use your intuition. If that someone is the teacher, just don’t do it. If why isn’t obvious, I’ll need to write another essay. Instead, use your crush as motivation to practice. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable or just hit on someone at random. If you aren’t sure what that means or are enamored of a number of men or women in class, again, don’t do it. It’s sleazy. Most people are looking for respite in their yoga class, not a date. If someone hits on you and you feel uncomfortable, talk to the teacher. Don’t let them ruin your experience or take your favorite class from you. It’s not right.

Be Neat and Patient When Putting Props Away At All Times
Fold blankets and mats properly, stack blocks neatly, and don’t cut in the line waiting to do so. In fact, keep the things near your mat during class to a minimum. You don’t need your cell phone next to you. If you take your specs off, put them on a block so no one steps on them.

Locker Room Etiquette
Do not lock yourself into the sole bathroom for ten minutes to change when there is a line. Change in the changing area and keep the bathroom free for others. Do not take lengthy showers, especially when others are waiting. If you use the last of something (soap, towels, etc), tell the management. Don’t use your phone here either, if it’s a yoga studio. No one showering after class wants to hear about your mother’s health issues or your dinner plans. Take it outside.

Again, a once in awhile transgression is not an issue. Bad habits are. Yoga classes and schools vary in etiquette, so get a feel for yours and if unsure, ask someone!

yoga etiquette 101

EtiqForYoLike most subcultures, yoga has an unspoken etiquette. When it is spoken, or posted on signs in studios, it’s often ignored. Who reads signs when they could read a flirtatious text on their phone? Probably the person trying to get by, annoyed that someone is blocking the hallway, texting, totally unawares. But she already knows that phones, by now, should be off.

In some ways yoga etiquette is obvious and commonsensical, but perhaps not so to the newcomer. And perhaps not in a world where someone is driven to design subway etiquette signs. In the beginning of the semester, I find myself frequently explaining matters of yoga etiquette. I remind myself that these behavioral codes may not be obvious to everyone, especially in a gym.

Because my teaching manner is very direct, I’m sure I startle students who expect a yoga teacher to be nice at all times. Yoga is not about nice, or about love and light. (Yes, love is part of the equation. But we could also call it emptiness. Emptiness and dark. That’s for another day.) In fact, yoga is etymologically related to “yoke,” with all its implications.

Art by Ted Slampyak

Art by Ted Slampyak

As a yoga teacher, I am responsible for creating a space for students, and I am a bit of a mama bear about this space. Most find I am incredibly nice, when these codes of conduct are not transgressed. Some guidance:

Arrive On Time or Early
When someone comes into a yoga class late, it disturbs the class while he comes in, put his stuff down, gets props, and finds a space—if there is a space. If not, everyone has to rearrange. He literally disrupts a mood in the room, and no one appreciates it. It is difficult to settle into a class when people are sending beams of anger.

Choose an Appropriate Level Class
If you are totally new to yoga, start with something for beginners. If you aren’t sure, call and ask questions. When you take a class because it fits in your schedule rather than because it is appropriate for your level, you run the risk of confusion, injury, and general unpleasantness. A teacher cannot water down a intermediate class because one student can’t follow, nor can he break the flow of class to teach you what the other students have already learned. It’s also annoying to everyone if you just do your own thing, either because you can’t do what’s being taught, or you’ve deemed it too easy for you. (There is a difference between modifying poses to your needs and creating your own little sequence. More on this in the next post.)

Sign in
How you pay for class and sign in varies greatly by studio. Before you set down your mat and settle in, make sure you are properly signed up. If you aren’t sure what the process is, ask someone. Don’t assume you can take a class if you aren’t signed up for that class. It puts the teacher in the uncomfortable position of telling you no, especially because, unless it’s her studio, she doesn’t make the rules.

subETIQu

Art by Jay Shells

Turn off Gadgets
I suppose it was inevitable, but last year it happened. I had a student text in class. She was in setu bhanda. I was flabbergasted. My eyes got big and wide and I shook my head at her. When she didn’t stop I added, “That is not appropriate.” Yoga is about awareness. Awareness requires discipline, and separating yourself from your phone for an hour is one place to start. If this doesn’t interest you, try spinning. At the very least, have respect for others. The yoga studio is one of the last spaces left where we are free from soul-crushing electronic disquiet. If you cannot be away from your phone for the duration of the class, don’t go. Don’t use your phone in the changing room or lobby, either. This is the policy at most studios as it’s disturbing to those around you.

Cleanliness is Next to
Hygiene is such a big part of Hindu culture (from which yoga comes) that there are myriad rituals around it. Cleanliness is a big deal, and as well it should be. Did you know that you are meant to shower before, not after, yoga? My friend, Angela, explains this in her own memo on yoga etiquette: Arriving. It’s important that you, your clothes, and your mat be clean. There’s nothing wrong with sweating in class and the smell that may come with it. It is the stale odors that are objectionable.

Leave Your Shoes Outside!
Take your shoes off and leave them outside the studio, or wherever you see shoes stored. Even if the class is in a space not exclusively designated for yoga, note what others are doing with their shoes and follow suit. Why? Because they are so filthy (especially in NYC) that there are symbolic rituals around them.

etiquWear Clothes
Cover up. You’d be surprised what can pop out in an up dog or revealed in down dog. In fact, try them in the dressing room before you buy. Pants that seem opaque in the delicate lighting of your home may well not be in the gaudy florescence of a gym. This is not a judgment about your sexual availability, nor is there judgment if your velcro fly rips open in a down dog assist and your pants come off in my hands (happened). It is simply about keeping distractions to a minimum. I prefer guys keep their shirts on. Women do. That said, your comfort is important. For more info on what to wear, try: yoga :: what to wear? and what to wear for yoga.

Pipe Down
When you enter the studio, please quiet down. This means don’t bang the blocks, whap the mat down, or yell across the room to a friend. It also means begin to draw your awareness in. Notice the light, the sounds, the temperature, your mood, your energy level, your breath. Give your full attention to yourself, by which I don’t mean getting your space before that new guy does (see next post). Begin this transition when you take your shoes off, and stay with it until the end of class. Not only is it impossible to do this if you are chatting with a friend, but it is impossible for those around you, as well. Even if you aren’t interested in yoga, please be respectful of those who are. Don’t chit chat until class ends.

Out of respect for your eyes and time, I’ll cover the second half in the next post on Wednesday.

art & yoga: photography as a daily practice

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Photography has always been something that brings me into the moment (except, perhaps, the few years I worked full time as a photog). It also makes me happy. Seeing something that strikes my interest and playing with it via the camera brings me joy. I’ve noticed that on these walks, a few shots can turn my mood around. I’ve often heard the argument that photography does the opposite, takes the seer out of the moment, by looking for a photo or trying to freeze time instead of just being with what is there. This may be true, and may be more true for some than others. Perhaps if you are on a trip and feel the need to snap away to show others you were there—but this is not photography, and the result is not interesting. Yes, there are definitely moments when it’s time to put down the camera. Personally, I’ve found that photography brings me far more into the moment than writing does. Not the moment of actual writing, when there’s little choice, but the stories I write in my head when walking down the street, when I see something funny I want to share. As it is told and retold in my mind, how much accuracy have I retained? How much have I missed passing by? As a form of creativity, I don’t see this as inherently bad. I just notice the power photography has to bring me into the moment and open my eyes. It’s inaccurate to say that photography is not an act of awareness. We don’t hear people complain that writers aren’t in the moment because they are crafting stories in their heads, but it is perfectly true.

Last year, I started carrying a point and shoot with me at all times. Not necessarily to Mysore practice, but everywhere. But because my walk to practice is daily, at my most focused time of day, a series of photos began: The Walk to Mysore. It’s also the walk from Mysore, which can include different paths. Read the full story…

yoga mats: the good, the bad, and the crumbly

The yoga mat. It is very good to have your own if you practice yoga regularly. You can contract some pretty gross stuff from communal mats. What kind of mat you want will largely depend on your yoga. If you practice a few times a week and don’t mind PVCs, a cheap mat from Yoga Accessories, Gaiam, or anywhere will do the trick. Expect it to be slippery until you break it in. My teacher recently gave me the best advice ever on breaking in a mat: “Don’t cut your toenails for awhile. Then they’ll chip into the mat and it will have more traction.” Amazing. I usually just tell people to machine wash it and air dry. This is an upside to the cheap mats—but don’t try it with a fancy mat. Anything but the cheap, common mat will probably not survive a machine wash.

If you practice more seriously, or don’t want a PVC mat, there are better, but more expensive options. If you practice ashtanga, you will shred a cheap mat in a week, and the little mat bubbles will stick all over you. There are two solutions to this. The first is a towel (or mysore rug), most popular in Ashtanga and Bikram, which heavy sweaters will need anyway. You use the mat for standing poses, then unfurl the towel over it for the rest. I really don’t know one brand from another, as I don’t sweat that much and don’t use one. The next solution is a good mat. Ashtangis pretty much swear by Manduka because they don’t shred, and their PRO mats are guaranteed for life. Take note: the Manduka eKO®  collection are not. I bought one, expecting it to preform like my PROlite. Instead it shredded in just a few uses. It was also much more grippy—too grippy for my taste.

leaf bug on mat

It took me no less than 25 emails with their customer service to convince them that a $76 yoga mat should not shred after a few uses, even if it was natural tree rubber. They finally sent me a PROLite to replace it for a $12 shipping fee. Their rep was helpful, if a times a bit absurd, suggesting that a wipe down with apple cider vinegar would stop the shredding and offering to send a “slightly used mat” to replace it (see “gross stuff” above). This was, I acknowledge, after they ran out of the sale mats they’d originally offered because Hurricane Sandy delayed my reply. I am sure they found me equally absurd.

So, yes, I recommend the PRO/PROlite mats. The PROs are extremely cushy and durable, but heavy. Not for walking about town, but great for home, studio, or I suppose, people with cars. They are cushier than the PROlite, which I’ve read some people find hard. I don’t. I also don’t find them slippery, after a break in. I heard a teacher explain that mats are slippery when dry, but stick when you’re sweaty.

I don’t find that to be the case, but maybe for some. While they are expensive, they last forever. They are made of “an eco-certified PVC material and manufactured emissions free” (their site). It’s quite awesome to have a mat you’ve spent thousands of hours on. If you get a cheaper mat and have to buy a new one every week, month, or year, that’s much more expensive than getting a good one to begin with, and harder on the planet. While I don’t adore my manduka mat, I can’t really imagine getting that excited about a mat. It’s a good mat, and it doesn’t fall apart or shed into my hair or clothes. I got mine on sale at Gilt, so they were more like $55 than $85.

Another recommended mat, less expensive but less durable, is the eco-friendly Jade Yoga Mat. They have more traction than Manduka PROs and are made of PVC-free biodegradable tree rubber. I have a few students who like them, but I’m not sure how they’d hold up to an ashtanga practice. I see them shred within a year. They are super-grippy and you can catch on it if your jump-throughs don’t clear. Judging from web reviews, they are popular with vinyasa practitioners. I’m also told this hugger mugger is cheap, not-slippery, and good.

Mats to avoid? Anything made out of jute. I got one on amazon years ago and it was a disaster from the get go, shedding its juteness all over me, the studio, and the practitioners after me. It is also hard and sand papery, and literally cut my feet open. There are blood stains on that mat. I’ve had similar issues with the super-thin travel mats, made by assorted companies. They are way too thin to practice on unless you’re on carpet or grass, and that’s not ideal anyway. I suppose better than nothing, and I still travel with mine, had for $12 on amazon. Buy a cheap one though, because the pricey travel mats are no better.


Photos from my beloved personal archives. ©2010-2013.
West 23rd St./Under a tree uptown/Upstate/West 16th St.

to practice or not to practice: ladies’ holiday

menstruThere are as many takes on yoga asana practice during menstruation as there are euphemisms for it. Ladies’ holiday, your moon (not to be confused with the moon), ladies’ days, your flow, the curse, crimson tide, the rag, that time of the month, and, refreshingly, your period, are a few you’ll hear in wider yoga discourse.

The official line in Ashtanga is not to practice at all during your “moon.” Iyengar discourages twists, inversions, deep backbends and binds, and suggests specific practices based on what you’ve got going on (e.g. heavy cramps, bloating, no period at all). You can find these in Geeta Iyengar’s Yoga, A Gem for Women. Many schools advise not to invert, while others say listen to your body and figure out what’s best for you. I’ve heard Cyndi Lee of Om Yoga advise that women should invert, because it’s only a patriarchal edict that tells women they can’t. Honestly, I see the logic in all of it.

Don’t practice at all? This is the Ashtanga way, as K. Pattabhi Jois told women not to practice during their periods, and for traditionalists, what Jois says, goes. Yes, it’s easy to forget that is Yoga is a tradition developed by and for men. In India, women write books with lengthy introductions to convince readers that yoga is something women can and should do (e.g. Yoga, A Gem for Women). It’s hard to imagine in the female-majority yoga rooms of the west, but yoga is not historically a women’s endeavor.

I didn’t even have to add “yoga” to the “tampax” image search.  Of course she’s wearing white pants. And yes, it really says, “Who would have thought a tampon could get me to that Zen place?” Nothing like a mixed metaphor for ragtime practice.

While not practicing might sound silly to you, understand that Ashtanga is an intense practice that demands mula bandha, which is quite difficult to do during menstruation. I find it’s quite hard to pull up and in when I’m a bit swollen and tender. Do I practice? Usually, yes, but it depends on how I feel. There are some days a year I wake up and say, “No way will that feel okay right now,” and I go back to bed. But often (like last week), I feel great when I’m able to move and stretch my body, which actually seems to tighten and lock up in the days before, but relaxes again when my period starts. I like to practice.

To invert of not to invert? This debate has been going on for quite some time, and it seems to have three camps. The first: Traditionalists who believe that inverting interferes with apana, the downward flow of energy in the body. It is advanced in a retro-ditz-delicate-flower piece by Kathryn Budig on elephant journal. “I officially mark myself as senseless during the preceding days as the first few of the actual holiday. When you can normally find me working flips in a handstand till I can’t see straight, this time of the month it’s more common to find me propped up on the couch, my handy Jane Austen novel du jour next to me, and an artillery of spoons ready to attack a fresh mint and chocolate chip gelato.” Senseless, eh? Hmmm. What exactly is a Jane Austen du jour? Doesn’t she only have 5 or so novels? And Ms Budig reads one every day? How many spoons does one need to “attack” fresh gelato? I prefer to let it warm and soften a bit, so that it glides from bowl to spoon to mouth. In fact, I like to lounge about reading and eating chocolate every day of the month. I certainly don’t limit it to that time.

classygalBudig goes on to say that she believes not practicing on her period is a form of respect. For what? Her teacher? The moon? Patriarchy? Jane Austen? While she doesn’t like the suggestion that “blood will get stuck” if you invert (I’ve never heard it put quite that way before), she does argue that, “logistically speaking if something is trying to get out, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to turn it upside down. Or twist it. Or strain it. Or do anything more than supine postures, snuggling a bolster, light walks and all those bites of chocolate.” Well, logistically, if something is trying to “get out,” it makes a lot of sense to twist it, no? If you wanted fluid out of something soft, you’d twist, right?

This careless argument doesn’t do much to convince me to lie around during my period. And many are turned off by the red-tenting of women around the time of our periods. This second camp is well-covered in this Go With the Flow article on Jezebel. The medical risk of inverting involves retrograde menstruation, which some argue causes endometriosis. While most doctors say this myth has been debunked, Kathleen Lea Summers, MD, PhD, argues that as of 2011, “Retrograde menstruation remains the prevailing scientific hypothesis for what causes endometriosis. It’s complicated, and other factors play a part—things like genetics, epigenetics, immune function, environmental toxins, etc.”

Wow! Crazytown ad from the 1950s.

Wow! Crazytown “feminine” ad from the 1950s.

“For sure women who have more frequent periods, those that bleed heavier, and those that have a blockage to normal flow through the vagina are the most likely to develop endometriosis. That indicates the amount of backward flow is important in development. While there are no studies looking specifically at whether or not women who practice inversions during their periods are more likely to develop endometriosis, prudence is wise. Anyone with a personal or family history of endometriosis should never do inversions while on their period. Other women need to be careful too, especially during the days of heaviest flow. If they choose to invert during menses, then time in the posture should be limited to 30 seconds.”

That said, there are doctors, including Mary P. Schatz, M.D., who state that inverting won’t cause endometriosis, but it can cause vascular congestion (heavy bleeding). I’ve talked with a number of teachers and students who have found this to be the case. We are of the third camp—try it out for yourself and see how you feel. I inverted when I started years ago, but on several occasions got really intense cramps afterward. I’d never heard anyone else complain of this until a commenter on the elephantjournal article said the same thing. I also tend to bleed more. Further, I just really don’t feel like spending ten minutes upside down when my belly is heavy. So, while once is a blue moon (sorry), I will feel up to inverting, I usually don’t.

Wow! Crazytown "Outsmart Mother Nature" ad from 21C

Wow! Crazytown “Outsmart Mother Nature” ad from 21C.

Bodies are all extremely different, from person to person, but also from cycle to cycle. The only way to know what’s best for you is to pay attention. I find I’m often (but not always) extra stiff before my period starts. Some months I don’t even expect it (meaning no PMS) and other months, I do. Sometimes I feel tired and heavy, sometimes I’m energetic. I notice, and behave accordingly. The reason the Budig piece grates? It advances the notion that women are “senseless” and unable to work during their “moon.” In once sentence she tells her students, “Notice what is happening in your body and mind before you race past it to where you think you should be.” Then she races past everyone to tell us how we feel and where we should be—on the couch with bon bons. “Same goes for ladies’ holiday. Don’t ignore it by trying to keep life the way it is everyday.  Stop, acknowledge, observe, respect and rest. Honestly ladies, we’ve earned it. Period.”

We’ve earned it? What does that even mean?

An old friend, Lena Kim, MD and Assistant Professor of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at UCSF, advised: “There is no evidence that yoga and/or inverted positions are harmful during menstruation. If anything, exercise in general decreases menstrual cramps.” If you have personal concerns about irregularities, definitely seek out the advice of your doctor.

Do consider how you feel when you practice and invert every day of the month, and make your decisions from there. Yes, oddly, there is a huge social and political lens that will color how we look at this, instead of just feeling our bodies. It’s kind of weird, really. Having experienced everything from light, unnoticeable periods to some extremely intense cycles, my only advice is to pay attention to your body and do what feels right. You’ll know what that is in the moment.

Soon I’ll give some ideas as to what asana and pranayama help me at the more difficult times. They aren’t what I expected, but the doctor was right!

(First posted Feb 6, 2013)

yoga :: what to wear?

part 2 of 2. See also part 1: “preferably something opaque” endures all trends

Because my shala is closed on the weekend, yesterday I took a led power class. This class is such a circus, and so different from quiet morning Mysore, that I take it almost to test my ability to focus. You know, kind of like how the aging Gandhi told young girls to sleep and bathe naked with him to test his purity. I enjoy every minute.

photo sexy yoga wear

Victoria’s Secret, high on the sweatshop list, breaks out with NEW! Yoga & Sexxxy Lounge. Hey, darling! You’re losing your shorts.

It’s been two years since I wrote a bit on what to wear for yoga and it’s time I updated, as my views have changed on a matter or two. The basic tenet to (please) wear something opaque still stands. So does: “You need nothing special to do yoga.” That said, some togs will serve you better than others. Especially if they are clean. You must launder your clothing. You are sweating. Yes, I am talking to you, undergrads. Maybe you have developed a tolerance for your personal odor, but we have not. Please. Wash your yoga wear.

There is just so much stuff. Everywhere. Especially after sales blitz December. It is overwhelming. So, to reiterate, you need nothing special to do yoga. If you are thinking that a cute new top will get you into headstand, stop. If that line made you want to run and check the Gilt sales in case there’s something great you might miss, get a hold of yourself. Take a breath and keep reading. Better yet, go practice in whatever you are wearing now. If it’s a t-shirt, you will find it bags around your head. So next time choose a snug-but-not-tight tank top. That’s my choice. They are fairly easy to find, but I’ll mention some stores in a moment.

gaiam2

Gaiam has some nice yoga stuff, and good intentions.

Pants are more troublesome. Years back Old Navy made a boot leg pant that I loved. They phased it out in 2005 or so, and I had to search for something else. I had to switch to capris, because they took over the market and it was hard to find anything else. It seems that yoga clothing manufacturers are as desperate for your money as the rest as the garment industry, because styles of yoga pants cycle. If you like leggings and slightly flared capris (flatters who?) are in vogue, too bad. This is why when I find a pant I like, I tend to buy five pairs in black, so I don’t have to go through the search again for a few years. If you really think you need the current style in the current brand of yoga wear to practice, you are missing the point.

I’ve been told by men that shorts are a concern. Last time, Rod said: “A good rule of thumb, especially for blokes, is to imagine that at some point you could be upside down in the clothes that you put on: how much will be revealed/concealed when this is the case?” I recently saw another student reiterate this concern in a shoulderstand comment on the faceboek.

Fibers. I used to prefer cotton, as weird blends smell more when you sweat. Then I read about how toxic and pesticide ridden most cotton is and I changed my mind. While it’s easy to buy from Old Navy because they’re cheap and convenient, it’s not so easy to think about the small child working in a sweatshop sewing your pants together. Though it’s easy to be cynical and toss off responsibility because basically everything you buy in today’s world is exploiting someone, in the end, it does matter. Check out The Story of Stuff for how all the unused junk in your storage space affects communities near and far (and what you can do about it).

When Gaiam learned of this being printed on their mats by CafePress, they pulled them immediately. Really, truly bizarre.

?????

Brands like Gaiam, Manduka, Patagonia, and Prana are smaller businesses that try to do something valuable for the planet we inhabit. Do they? To some extent, yes. When insanely distasteful slogans (Who wants to do yoga on a mat celebrating someone’s death? I’m so confused) were being printed on Gaiam mats by CafePress, Gaiam removed them immediately. “The Footprint Chronicles” at Patagonia examine their “life and habits as a company. The goal is to use transparency about our supply chain to help us reduce our adverse social and environmental impacts – and on an industrial scale.” One of my students works there, and she loves it. Prana is committed to sustainability and partners with some good organizations to that end. I’ll cover Manduka soon in a yoga stuff post. I do get my nice yoga stuff from Gilt when they offer these companies’ wares.

Yeah, it’s hard to know if “sustainability” and “community” claims are sincere or just marketing gimmicks in the brave new world of conscious capitalism. It’s simply gross when Whole Foods CEO states that global warming is “not necessarily bad” while promoting his new book: Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. Ugh. (For an endlessly amusing look at commercial yoga culture, check out The Babarazzi.)

Walking home from that yoga class yesterday, I overheard two women talking as they passed by on Greenwich Avenue. One said to the other, “We could go drunk shopping,” in a dull monotone, as if there’s nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon in New York City. Did you even know this was a thing? Let’s get a collective grip. The bottom line is, how much is enough? Do you really need it? Figure that out, and buy appropriately. Then make a list of things you love to do aside from buying stuff, maybe things you wish you had more time to do. The next time you find yourself shopping to distract yourself or ease your pain, instead do something from that list. This seems simplistic, but it’s harder than it sounds. There will be some resistance, guaranteed. But it will feel really good. Especially if it’s some yoga. :)

how yoga ruined my tan

This isn’t about the superficial layer.
It is about the body and its endless ability to amaze.

leg1

little white bumps

Last year, I photographed my friend Ilona making a tattoo. At the end, she told the woman she couldn’t work out for a few weeks because the sweat could damage the tattoo. I later mentioned this to a student sweating in class who had a fresh tattoo, and she said she’d never heard that before.

In November I took a short trip to Puerto Rico and spent hours upon hours in the ocean. I tanned really quickly, instead the gradual tan I acquire in NYC summer. When I got home to dry, cold New York (to a Noreaster, in fact), I went to a sweaty yoga class. After, I went to an opening with a friend. At some point, I looked down at my arms and they were covered with gross little white bumps, the likes of which I had never seen. In a few days, they burst and turned into the regular old peeling skin we associate with a suntan gone wrong. When the same thing happened on my legs after a good sweat a week later, I realized the little bumps were created by drops of perspiration under the skin, which later popped open.

leg-peeling

full on peel

Really cool.

It reminded me of Ilona’s advice. I could see how the same process could affect a new tattoo.

I showed my teacher. Though at first it was clear he thought I was a crackpot, when he actually saw it he was fascinated. “Thank you for showing me that!” he enthused.

While I’m by no means a physiology nerd, the body is endlessly fascinating. I especially like to watch (and sometimes photograph) how it heals. I considered making a little list of my favorite books on the body, but it’s pretty eclectic, so I’ll just name a few. My beloved rolfer gave me an old edition of the 1930s book The Thinking Body by Mabel Todd. Anna Swir’s book of poetry, Talking to My Body (see below). And Gandhi’s Body by anthropologist Joseph Alter, who was about 15 years ahead of Mark Singleton but lacked the audience.

I Starve My Belly for a Sublime Purpose

Three days
I starve my belly
so that it learns
to eat the sun.

I say to it: Belly,
I am ashamed of you. You must
spiritualize yourself. You must
eat the sun.

The belly keeps silent
for three days. It’s not easy
to waken in it higher aspirations.

Yet I hope for the best.
This morning, tanning myself on the beach,
I noticed that, little by little,
it begins to shine.

~Anna Swir

You know, on days when I’m cranky, I ask myself if all of this yoga and meditation is worth it, if I’m really any better off than when I started. I then remember something like how much I used to think about what I ate, what I should eat, how much and when, and what my body looked like. I didn’t consider how I felt. That was denied. I rarely think of that, anymore. I just eat what I want, when I want. If I don’t want to eat or drink too much, it’s because I don’t want to feel gross. The denial of food is a denial of life and of the body. Trying to find spirit by denying matter can only take you so far. Seeking through the body is far more fun.

“I am not an intellectual, I write with my body.”  ~Clarice Lispector

the thing about gurus: a kumaré review [revisited]

Another repost. Because it’s the time of year we huddle inside and watch flicks. Well, if you’re in the Northern parts anyway. This is one of the five movies I’ve seen in the last few years. Highly recommend. (Originally posted July 1, 2012.)

Gurus have always been problem for me, perhaps my biggest in the yoga and meditation worlds. Though perhaps it’s the strange and often appropriated spirituality that bothers me, and gurus are an offshoot of that. The reason I’ve left most sanghas (communities) is because there comes a point that if you aren’t into the guru, you just aren’t going to be accepted or go further. It’s kind of sad.

I teach at a university rather than a studio because most studios require their teachers to drink the kool aid, so to speak. Even studios and meditation centers without gurus tend to have very strong head-teacher personalities and a doctrine to which their teachers must subscribe. Take just a few classes somewhere and you get the idea. If you don’t, take their teacher training. Corporate studios are usually an exception, but they’re corporate. It’s a shame, because a community of like minded yogis or meditators is an amazing thing.

Why are gurus a problem? Because they pretend to have something you don’t. This is Vikram Gandhi’s point in the documentary, Kumaré, playing now at IFC. Because their willingness to be deified is problematic. Because more often than not, they abuse their power. Because they often take advantage of their disciples, sexually and otherwise. Because anyone worthy of being your guru won’t let you deify her. Good teachers encourage personal agency rather than usurp it. That’s what yoga and meditation communities need, amazing teachers.

So Vikram Gandhi’s documentary was poignant. He’s a Jersey-born Hindu who was frustrated by religion. So he studied it at Columbia and was frustrated further (sounds familiar). He didn’t like the YogaGuru madness blossoming in America, and didn’t find them to be more authentic in his motherland of India. So he set out to become a fake guru, to prove that gurus have nothing you don’t. You don’t need anyone but yourself. The answers are within.

Okay. I agree. But what I don’t quite follow is why Gandhi so strongly needed to tell others what they do or don’t need. I’m never terribly comfortable with that. That’s what gurus do, right?

Regardless, the results were great. The first impression I had of the film (full disclosure) was from anecdotes of a student of mine who played Kumare’s assistant. It seemed that its initial intent was to ridicule those who will believe and worship anyone, even a complete fraud from Jersey. But if that was the original intent, it didn’t pan out. What clearly happens along the way is that Vikram falls in love with these people. It changes him. Temporarily, anyway.

I discussed the film with two friends, Surya, who saw it, and Orit, who did not. Orit said “He fell in love with the power, you mean.”

Surya was raised by European parents who followed a Hindu guru. She was part of a spiritual sangha until she was 12. She is incredibly cynical about the experience, yet she agreed. “No, he fell in love with the people. He did.”

And that’s what makes the movie. But it also, for me, disproved his point. The followers needed Gandhi and he needed them, though not as a guru but as a teacher. Because of the circumstances of the documentary, Gandhi was more of a really good teacher than a guru, in the western sense of the word. In Sanskrit, guru generally means teacher, but has a spiritual context which tends to add some baggage. Teachers also learn from their students, at least as much as they teach. The guru tradition is more unidirectional. Knowledge is imparted by teacher to student.

identGandhi was being filmed while he played the role of guru, and not simply filmed, but filmed by close friends and creative partners. He had checks on his power, and he knew the plot: he was going to reveal himself, which forced a certain responsibility and humility, especially when he began to care about his disciples. Instead of behaving like a typical guru, with omnipotence and hubris, he behaved himself while he communicated his message. Because of this he was a powerful teacher. And because he cared.

I’m not sure that Vikram expected the transformation that came about. I’d guess that he was out of prove his point, not be transformed by his role of the master. But transform he did. As many yoga teachers can tell you, the projections of goodness that students can place on you are powerful. So is the joy of simply helping people feel good. When Vikram Gandhi’s disciples loved him and thought he was great, he felt it, and loved them back. And because his friends were around to film him and keep him in line, and he had to reveal himself in the end, it didn’t go to his head. Instead, he became great, helpful, loving, and caring. And as Gandhi says pretty frequently, “Ask my friends. I am not that kind of guy. I think people miss Kumaré (read: prefer him to me).”

When he said this on stage in a Q&A with cast and crew after the screening, there was a resounding, “Yeah!”

The film provokes two questions for me. Do people need gurus? Why wasn’t Gandhi’s transformation long lasting? Or, why does he wish he could always be Kumaré, instead of somehow incorporating Kumaré into himself? Why did he return to his cynical, judgmental self after the filming? That for me is a large question. Did he require the constant projection to be (and feel) loving, open and helpful? Or does he just miss feeling needed and useful?

Do people need gurus? These people clearly needed someone to reflect their goodness and inner guidance back to them, just as Gandhi needed people to reflect his. While I prefer teachers, who am I to tell someone not to seek a guru? I have friends whom I respect, amazing and intelligent people, who believe in a guru. The disciples in the film clearly face difficult problems, issues well beyond existential cynicism, and likely lack solid, understanding relationships in their lives, now and as well as in their tender, developing years.

At one point in the movie, Gandhi talks with a woman who’d been sexually abused by a family member. Just after her interview, he states (I believe as the camera shows her walking off), “We are all really the same” in a very we-are-one guru-y kind of way. I suppose it was meant to make us relate to her, to feel with her, but said at that moment, after that interview, I questioned if Gandhi really gets it. If he gets what it’s like to be someone without a comfortable life, without parents waiting with friends and supporters in the restaurant next door to celebrate his most recent success, with problems larger than showing up to his ten-year Columbia University reunion to face his more successful friends. A personal history filled with trauma and lack of support creates a psyche that aches to be seen and to believe in something more grand than the pain thrown one’s way. Does he get that? Or does he really think they can just find their inner truth on their own? Because, clearly, these people needed to be seen. They needed what Gandhi gave them as much as he needed them. No one can just do it on his own.

Who knows? Maybe he does get it. It’s not clear. I guess that is my question for him. How did making the film change his perception of needing a guru and finding truth on one’s own? Especially in light of his post-filming difficulty finding the same joy in himself as he was able to find in Kumaré.

That said, teachers able to help you believe in your own voice are far far better guides than gurus. In Kumaré, Gandhi is almost as good as they get.

ashtanga in new york :: finding a teacher

How to find a mysore ashtanga teacher in new york? LMGTFY. Because honestly, that’s how I found Lori. An internet search. I then asked two ashtangi friends if they knew her and heard good things about both her and her assistant, as well as a little gossip. I had a feeling that’s where I’d end up, but since I was searching I thought I’d check a few others out, first. Elephant Beans has a helpful list of Mysore and Led classes in NYC. It’s out-of-date, but it’s a more thorough listing than this. Definitely check the shala’s current schedule before you show up. I found that most led classes are really half primary, not full, even if they schedule doesn’t list it as half. That can be frustrating, but it’s due to the fact that many drop-in students just can’t do full primary. Half is more than enough.

Of the ashtanga shalas in NYC, the major contenders are: Ashtanga Yoga New York, Ashtanga Yoga Shala NYC with Guy Donahaye, and Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana with Lori Brungard. That’s a subjective list of places where I actually know people who practice. There are other studios with Mysore programs in the city as well, like Kula Yoga, Pure Yoga, and The Shala Yoga House, as well as studios that offer led classes.

Boulder 2002 by Dominic Corigliano

P. Jois Teaching in Boulder 2002
by Dominic Corigliano

I tried a few of these at Greenhouse Holistic in Williamsburg with Carla Waldron and John Schneider. Both were excellent, especially for led classes, which can be hard to teach. I found them both gentle and respectful of everyone in the room, which was full of people at different levels. I overheard Carla tell a student to press into his elbows to help takeoff in chakrasana. This turned into a major gem for me. I tried it later and it gave me a new confidence in the maneuver. I was quite pleased. The Roebling studio is pretty basic, with nice brick walls. It’s close to the L train, but still way too far for me to travel every day, though they are growing their ashtanga program.

Definitely a must try for Williamsburgers is daily mysore at Kula Yoga with Augustine Kim (pictured at top). I practiced in the lovely space once, and would happily practice there daily if it fit into my space-time continuum even slightly more easily. Augustine is a gifted teacher who truly cares about his students’ practices, which you may have noticed can be sadly rare in ego-maniacal NYC.

The East Village is the epicenter of Ashtanga in NYC, but I thought I’d try some teachers on the Upper West Side. There was a dreadful experience at a shala in Harlem and many spammy gems like this from Pure: “Autumn-that crisp trans-formative season where the evergreens become inflamed by Nature’s radiant change has truly manifested. In New York City no tree, flower, meadow or hill will go untouched by the bright colors of change. That is the allure of October, which brings to mind through the power of Yoga you can be apart of that change too. Pure Yoga, rated “Best Yoga” 2009 through 2011 encourages this type of transformation through our 130 classes taught by the best teachers in the city! [sic]” Wow. As hard as it was to pass up the BEST TEACHERS!! and OCTOBER FREE!! on October 31st, when we were all licking our hurricane wounds and unable to get uptown anyway, I gave it a miss. Any studio that has to rope you in with gym-style enrollment fees (they are owned by Equinox) is not the power of yoga I seek. Perhaps the teachers are great, but I was less than impressed with their management and “yoga advisor.”

buy localI had planned to try The Shala Yoga House, as it is the closest and most convenient for me, but I’d had enough roaming around, and I’d always avoided the place, as I’d heard the author of eat, pray, wank practiced there. Instead, I went to Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana with Lori Brungard in the East Village. A small shala with wood floors and brick walls, no spammy marketing (in fact, later, the teacher actually texted when she changed the schedule to be sure it would work for me), perfect schedule, amazing co-teacher (male, to balance), beautiful website, old school ashtangi (Lori studied with P. Jois), and a small, woman-owned business. What more could I ask? My friend Angela, an ashtanga teacher in Ann Arbor, had practiced with once her years back and found her present and helpful. I liked her immediately. The studio has great energy and is walking distance from home. It is a great find. Like the reviews on google+ report, Lori pushes you to your limits, but is gentle and compassionate at the same time. She’s also fun. The shala has some definite romper room moments, and both Lori and Augustine Kim, who teachers the 7am class (he’s since left for Williamsburg), have the twinkle in the eye that you look for in your yoga teacher. My practice is more fun, nuanced, and challenging than it’s ever been.

[Update: Summer ’13: I changed shalas because of a schedule conflict, and now practice at AYNY. But I still wholeheartedly endorse AYS!]

the search for a new yoga teacher/studio

Yoga Breeze, Yakuin Studio, Fukuoka, Japan, September 3, 2010

Yoga Breeze, Yakuin Studio, Japan (c) Govindakai

It took me about a month of heavy searching to find my yoga teacher. How you do it depends largely on what you look for. Instead of making a list for you: location, teacher’s experience, price, style, schedule…which I touched on in the last few posts.  I will tell you my story, and you can suss out how to go about it from there in a way that works for you.

I knew I wanted a Mysore-style ashtanga shala (school), so I asked my ashtanga friends for recommendations. I read about the teachers, schedules, locations, and prices online, and I had an inking about where I’d end up. In the weeks I researched this, I hit a few studios in my neighborhood I’d never tried. They weren’t ashtanga schools, but the convenience of a studio but few blocks from home was too ideal not to try, even if I knew I wouldn’t end up there.

The first, Yogamaya, is a gorgeous studio in Chelsea. I’d taken classes from the founders years back at Laughing Lotus, a vinyasa studio also in Chelsea, and the yoga is the same. I tried a $28/week newcomers’ unlimited pass and went to three classes. Two, taught by Bryn, were very good. I’m just not into their wild choreographic sequencing. I suppose that it’s good for people who feel bored with traditional yoga sequences, but being bored is part of the practice. I find it impossible to go into my body when I’m waiting to hear what unknown, awkward transition will come next. I also don’t like spending 10 minutes on one side of the body standing, sitting, arm balancing, inverting, and then getting back up to do it all over again on the other. This is not how it’s meant to be. In traditional styles like ashtanga and Iyengar, we do the right side and then the left for each and every pose before we move on to the next. I will not bore you with the art and reasoning of yoga sequencing and the energetic properties of different poses. But many years ago, I noticed that classes with unpredictable posturing make me feel high strung. Sometimes good, like I had a nice work out, but not balanced and in my body, like more traditional styles of yoga do. Plus the work-out effect.

The third class I took there was with a very young teacher. It featured the most questionable sun salutation sequencing I’ve ever encountered. From standing forward bend, we sat down into a squat, and then jumped back. At the end, we jumped forward into a squat, then came up to forward bend. This is hell on the knees. In a squat, the toes are pointing out, in the direction of the knees. In the other poses they are straight forward. The was no safe way to transition this sequence, and the fact that it was totally awkward and unpleasant was not even addressed by the teacher. Ouch. It was enough to keep me from trying other classes there during my paid week. That said, it is a beautiful studio and I’m sure they have some amazing teachers. If you like funky sequencing, chanting to a harmonium, heavy appropriation of Indian culture, and inspirational, personal talks by your teacher at the start of class, Yogamaya (or Laughing Lotus) might be just your thing.

Because I am frequently asked about both Bikram and Yoga to the People, I also went to the YTTP on W26th Street. Yes, I took a hot yoga class. As expected, it was hot, and because I like to be warm, I enjoyed it more or less. I’m not into locking out the joints, which is a hot yoga specialty. In all the types of yoga I’ve done, they all pretty much agree that locking out the joints is not a good thing. Further, there’s a lot of pushing to go further, and who can really feel her limits at 4pm in a 100+ degree room? The muscles are like rubber. It’s certainly not a not-quite-heated, 6am ashtanga shala, where coaxing the muscles to open of their own accord is the name of the game. There are also some poses that aren’t great for the masses, like supta virasana and a weird whipping up to paschimottanasana from lying flat on the back, which is done numerous times. I’m partial to the jump backs and jump throughs of ashtanga to strengthen the mid-region. But I’m obviously biased. The studio was fine. I didn’t find it any less posh than the Bikram studio I tried for a week years back in San Francisco. The teacher was nice enough. I don’t remember his name, and that’s likely because YTTP don’t emphasize teachers or even put their names on the schedules, I assume to avoid the cult of personality that can form around teachers. I get that, though I don’t agree with it. I want know to whom I’m subjecting myself for an hour and a half.

Further, In early December, Bikram and YTTP came to a settlement (Bikram sued them for using his copyrighted sequence of poses) and YTTP will stop teaching that sequence as of Feb 15, 2013. “So what?” I say. It’s hardly a brilliant sequence. Change it up a bit, make some improvements, and maybe I drop by on a moon day or two.

So, hopefully it’s evident that this is a process of trial and error. Because I’m not partial to these studios doesn’t mean you might not be. I went to Laughing Lotus for a year or two when I was moving from integral hatha to vinyasa. I enjoyed the work out and it’s what I wanted at the time. Then I found the amazing, must-be-experienced Iyengar teacher Genny Kapular. She instilled in me a love for mindful sequencing and I’ve had a hard time with overly creative sequencing ever since.

The next post will be about the ashtanga teachers I tried, their studios, and those I didn’t get to because I found what I was looking for first.

yoga at home for the holidays

Last week I was commiserating with a student who’d missed class about how difficult it is to establish a home practice. It took me about two years of consistent classes to really get into practice on my own. Establishing a daily home practice took not only dedication, but concentration. It’s much easier to make yourself go to a class than to maintain focus amidst the endless distractions of your home. But once you’ve got it going, it’s really harder just to do yoga once in awhile when you can’t make class because it’s not habit and you have so many (pitiful) reasons not to do it.

It took a little trickery to get me started. If I thought of the whole 1.5 hour series, I wouldn’t do it. I was too hungry or tired or pressed for time. So I told myself I’d do one pose (which was usually the lazyman’s legs up the wall. It’s the best pose ever. We need, most of us, to be lazier), then I could relax. After the one pose, I was relaxed, and liking it, so I did one more. This went on through the whole series, often ending in seated mediation two hours later. No way? Believe me, it will happen.

Whether you are looking to keep the hamstrings happy until you get back to class next week, or you’re trying to establish or motivate a personal practice, a few minutes of yoga a day are enough to shift things into habit. As Ethan likes to say about meditation, “You wouldn’t skip brushing your teeth for a few days, then brush for an hour on the weekend, would you?” And so it is with yoga.

So here’s a 10-minute home practice that my Iyengar teacher Genny Kapuler gave me as a daily minimum of sorts years ago. Tomorrow or Friday I’ll post another that is more Ashtanga influenced.

So go get your mat (though you don’t really need one) and do some yoga.

Don’t even think of skipping savasana.

Happy Thanksgiving!

yoga and the true non-self?

What can you feel? I practice yoga because it helps me feel, which is something I’d trained myself to avoid. It’s an internal exploration that is unspeakably beautiful, and precious few teachers convey this. (Do I? Probably not well.) It’s partly because not many are looking for an internal practice, which means that sticking with an internal focus requires gumption, and partly because it takes far more than language to convey. And perhaps it has never been the point of the practice. Feeling in its raw form essentially alerts us to what we need and don’t need so that we can use our reason accordingly. But many of us are so threatened by our feelings that we repress them entirely. Yoga can help us to sense them again.

Instead, the trend is to use yoga to numb and discipline ourselves. The ancient Yoga Sutras, a non-physical, philosophic text which had limited relationship to physical practice until the 16-19th centuries, when they were slowly integrated, is commonly used by teachers to guide practitioners toward the “true self.” As I’ve noted before, there’s much confusion around this. It is not unusual for an “expert” on the Sutras to spend an hour lecturing about the non-self, and then wrap up his hour with, “Well, I hope you can see that this philosophy provides us with the tools we need to be our true selves.”btke

Huh? Aside from confusion around what in fact a “self” is, traditionally, yoga (in any of its forms) was never about finding the self, but obliterating it, transcending the self to be one with God. Or emptiness. This search for the self via yoga is a distinctly modern endeavor. That we imagine ourselves to be one with the ancients by using the Sutras essentially as a self-help method is bizarre. But if it works for you, excellent. Go with it. The idea that American yoga is a good-for-you-ancient-physical-philosophical practice is a pop-culture norm, propounded by the likes of The New Yorker and The New York Times, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Perhaps the most common part of the Sutras expounded upon in American yoga studios are the Yamas, the first of the eight limbs, moral precepts that read much like the Judeo-Christian commandments deeply embedded in Western Culture. We might take a look at the history of the last 2000 years and ask if these precepts have served us. If we find they haven’t, why are we so quick to snatch them from another tradition, particularly when that tradition aims to obliterate the self? Aside from a special few, this is not what we’re after at all.

On the importance of attachments and ego

In the last few years, uninspired by the teachings and praxis in our yoga communities, and frustrated by the deep push back against self-awareness that permeates both yoga culture and American culture at large (I’d argue that American therapeutic culture is about creating the appearance of a “happy” self, generally at the expense of difficult or deep self awareness, though I realize this is debatable), I’ve been exploring ideas of the self in European philosophy and psychology. Philosophers the world around (East and West) often hint there is no actual solid, unchanging entity we can call self, and neuroscientists often agree. Evan Thompson, a philosopher known for his work on cognitive science and Buddhism, said in an interview: “In neuroscience, you’ll often come across people who say the self is an illusion created by the brain. My view is that the brain and the body work together in the context of our physical environment to create a sense of self. And it’s misguided to say that just because it’s a construction, it’s an illusion.”

This supports what I’ve come to believe and work with: humans identify as selves. How do we make the best of this? How do we cultivate a healthy, flexible ego that allows us to operate in the world rather than perpetually escape into fantasy?

Let’s say a larger oneness connects us all, if only in that we all share a planet. As developmental psychology posits (psychological ideas are deeply embedded in American culture, so if you’ve grown up here, they impact you whether you endorse a ‘psychological worldview’ or not), as infants, slowly we learn that others are other, separate from us, and with the help of secure attachments to these others, we develop an ego that mitigates our otherness and provides us with a healthy sense of self that helps us relate as separate beings. There is no ego without the other, no me without you. We develop our selves in relationship to the people and culture around us. It is a deluded, neo-liberal fantasy to imagine ourselves to be perfectly independent—but a fantasy that the popular imagination endorses. As humans, we are never fully separate, nor are we never fully merged into oneness (partially, sometimes, but not fully). Many have noted, from Foucault to Ehrenreich, that such a limit experience would blow out our nervous system. This, as I understand it, is where the mad tend to dwell, a little further into the realm of oneness than society deems acceptable. A little blown out.

This is why non-self and non-attachment practices can be slippery for those who didn’t have easy beginnings, with safe, secure attachments. Some estimates suggest that 50% of the American population are not able to create secure attachments. Children who lack safe, healthy attachments often develop very rigid, defensive egos required for self-protection and survival, rather than flexible, healthy egos that allow us to take in and negotiate the vicissitudes of life. Rigid egos are so heavy that we often seek the divine, or spiritual release, or limit experience to escape them, if only momentarily, until the cage comes back down. Neither scenarios are effective in dealing with the day to day, or with putting one’s self out there in all the ways that tend to make humans feel happy and fulfilled: connecting with others, creating, sharing, giving, receiving.

New agers talk about human fluidity and oneness, arguing we need to work back to it. While most of us are far more boundaried and defended than necessary, the urge toward a total fluidity and unboundaried existence is ridiculous. Unless you’ve moved to a cave and renounced world and self alike, you cannot exist without boundaries and the ego and attachments that provide them.

At a meditation retreat awhile back, that guy dominated the discussion, a thirty-something determined to show off what he thought he knew, rather than dialogue. He launched into a story about a relationship he fast became bored with (or afraid of), and when he decided to end it, he told her (and us, as a punch line), “You know, there’s one thing that you can count on, and that’s change!”

Awesome. Buddhist platitudes in the service of avoiding close relationship. Just what we need. I’d wager that this was not change for him at all, but quite likely his habitual, uninformed reaction to intimacy. It’s happened 10, 20, 30 times, and without some serious intervention on his part, will keep on in that vein. And he’s justifying it in terms of spiritual non-attachment? Lordy. This spiritual bypass is sadly common, and these endless platitudes create the fabric of the pseudo-self-awareness of the yoga community.

sexytime with william broad

I somehow managed to ignore most of the uproar over William Broad’s “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” in the NYT. I didn’t really get his point, as it seems like a no-brainer. You can hurt yourself doing any physical activity, and that’s why you’re selective about what yoga you do and classes you take. And even then, you still might get hurt. Some might even argue that’s part of the practice. Are NYT readers really so stupid that they believed, before Broad, that yoga is a flawless transmitter of purity and health? I hope not. And as a journalist, a Pulitzer-winning science journalist, can’t he make that point without exaggerating figures and asserting that correlation is causation? Or is everyone so desperate to sell these days that responsible journalism goes out the window? Or did it go long ago.

(Leslie Kaminoff has a good video review of Broad’s new yoga book. I don’t entirely agree with the review, but I do recommend.)

But now I am flummoxed. Broad has turned to history to perpetuate his inaccuracies, and that bothers me (science has enough defenders). The yoga world has enough problems with historical accuracy, particularly with teachers and practitioners who’ve accepted myth as fact—without the likes of William Broad joining their ranks. And because for a dreadful number of bourgeois Americans, “If it’s in the NYT, it must be true,” this article is bound to have truly annoying ramifications.

To be fair, the history of yoga is complicated and full of long, question-filled gaps. It is an oral tradition, so there’s plenty to argue about regarding how it developed. But it’s fairly safe to say that sexual practices in Tantra are rare, and are/were practiced by the fringe. More importantly, they were not practiced, as Broad asserts, to have a rocking good time, but to cultivate awareness. Pleasure was not the goal, but an avenue to more intense levels of awareness. A bit like the way Gandhi slept with naked young women to test his chastity. (Well, actually not like that, but it did come to mind.)

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (15th c, ce), states that if “the body is healthy, bindu [semen] under control, and appetite increases, then one should know that the nadis are purified and success in hatha yoga is approaching.” (Ch.2: Pranayama, section 78).

Further, I’d venture to guess that Tantric practices are historically and perhaps currently much more common than hatha yoga. Take, for example, the Dalai Lama. He’s a practitioner of tantra. Is he screwing about ritually or otherwise? (Though his school, the Geluks, are known to visualize.) In fact, the misconception of Tantra as a chiefly sexual practice is sometimes referred to as “California Tantra.”

If you are interested in more about just how wrong Broad is about Tantra, Sanskrit scholar, Christopher Wallis, has called him out in a post on Flow Magazine. And Maia Szalavitz at Time magazine takes down the scientific studies he uses to back his argument.

When I first read the article, I wondered why the science wasn’t reported as a good thing, framed as “Dump your viagra and take some yoga! Become emotionally closer to your partner without even trying!” Instead, it’s some pseudoscientific reasoning for gurus’ poor behavior? In any group where numbers of young people give up their agency to a man who is revered and somewhat famous is going to have problems regardless of the premise of the group. Who’s really surprised? Why the need to fake history, quote some questionable studies, and patronize yogis’ lack of knowledge about the roots of their craft (when he can’t be bothered to learn it himself)? Very bizarre.

My favorite bit, and the most amazing part of the article, is the last line:

“But perhaps — if students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do — they would find themselves less prone to surprise and unyogalike distress.”

Why? Broad’s agenda. His new book, The Science of Yoga, is basically an argument for regulating the yoga industry by making it part of the medical industry. (Shudder.) Like Kaminoff says, Broad has a lot of trust in the government’s ability to regulate, not to mention trust in the medical industrial complex. What is so fantastic about this science journalist’s last line is that by saying, “and what it was designed to do” he implicitly argues that the mystical yogis circa the 15th century knew how to increase their sex drives by designing yoga poses that did so. How, Mr. Broad, did they have the scientific knowledge to do that?

And were they properly regulated?

Science? Crackpotism.  (Not the yogis. Mr. Broad.)

A big thank you to my former student Joel Bordeux for his opinion on the matter. He added that it’s impossible to know how common sexual practices in Tantra were because it was a secret practice:

I share your suspicions here. If pressed I’d say the vast majority of what we think of as ‘tantra’ does not involve sexual practices. Not all tantric traditions directly advocate them and within those that do, they’re supposed to be the preserve of a select few adepts.

However. It’s quite impossible to say with certainty how much ritual hanky panky ever actually happens, since it’s supposed to be top secret. So we have a situation where people who keep those traditions generally rationalize it away or claim to practice a modified version of the ritual where they either visualize (e.g. monks of the Dalai Lama’s geluk sect) or substitute out (e.g. Sri Vidya practitioners in South India) the offending elements.

 

yoga for insomnia

Over a year ago I designed a class for insomnia, because a number of students asked what could help them sleep. I did a bit of research, but for the most part I offered what had helped me the most. Sometimes a pose just shifts me out of monkey mind toward slumber. There are all sorts of recommendations in the interwebs, including some sequences with poses (especially backbends) I would never do at night, much less before sleep. But we’re all different. Below is a series of what has worked for me.

These poses are all take or leave. You don’t have to do them all, in fact, you could just choose one or two and hold them for a few minutes. If you know you hold in a certain area, choose a pose that will help you release there. If you aren’t sure, ask. Choose poses you enjoy so that you aren’t fighting with yourself before bed.

If insomnia is a problem for you, your habits around bedtime are important. First, you should have a bedtime. Seriously. If you drop in bed when you can’t hold your head up in front of the computer anymore, but your mind is still reeling, you won’t sleep. You need to set a reasonable time to retire and commit to it. I try to be ready for bed an hour before that time, and get in bed with a book. You don’t have that time? Log out of facebook. You have time. Electronic devices, news, stimulating TV and movies, even stimulating music can keep us from settling down. So, an hour or two before bed, unplug. Then try this series.

  • Start with a few optional sun salutation As. Don’t jump though. Step forward and back. Do no more than three.
  • Lie on your belly for salabhasana (locust pose), but in this variation, don’t lift your chest. Only your legs. Lower and repeat once, holding until you feel a bit tired.
  • Relax for 10 to 30 breaths, feeling your front body move against the floor as you breathe.
  • Press back to balasana (child’s pose). Stay here as long as you like.
  • Roll up and take a few long forward bends. Forward bends calm the mind and start moving your awareness inward. If you feel fidgety or anxious, just keep drawing your awareness back to your breath, and deepen it. Don’t engage the muscles as much as you would in an active class. Try to relax and let go. The longer you stay in the pose, the quieter you will become.
        1. Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) with a few pillows or blankets on your lap or under your knees to make it restorative
        2. Janu sirsasana (head-to-knee(ish) forward bend), also with lots of pillows, and/or
        3. Tarasana (diamond pose)
  • If, and only if, you have a strong sirsasana (headstand) practice, do it. If you aren’t totally there, skip it for now.
  • Sarvangasana (shoulderstand): As Geeta Iyengar notes in Yoga: A Gem for Women, “Sarvangasana and its variations are useful for developing a healthy mind. The nervous system is calmed and one is freed from hypertension, irritability, nervous breakdown, and insomnia. They are a boon for combating the stresses and strains of our daily life. They give vitality and self-confidence.” So this is your moment. Hold for 25 breaths to 5 minutes. Then lower the legs for halasana.
  • Halasana (plow). This pose is a miracle for insomnia. It’s one of the two poses that just shift something for me and in comes the Sandman. If your feet do not reach the floor, rest them on a bed or chair. Do not let your legs dangle. It is not restful. And you deserve better.
  • Roll out of plow as gracefully as possible and if you are not ready for sleep, try a restorative pose or two. Supta Baddha Konasana (supine bound angle pose) is nice and can be done in bed. Use blankets or pillows under your knees.
  • Supta Virasana (supine hero pose) is the other miracle pose for me (keep in mind, I might hold differently than you, but for me, it works). I think it’s the quad stretch, but this pose helps me sleep. Be VERY VERY careful with your knees. Use a bolster or pillows under your back and a block under your butt. DO NOT do the pose if you feel any knee strain. Just don’t. Hold 25 breaths to 5 minutes. Then take a slow, quiet down dog to iron you out.
  • Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine spinal twist) — our classic closing twist, any leg variation you like.
  • Savasana (corpse pose) is our final pose. Take your index and middle fingers together, and hold your ring and pinky fingers down with your thumb for some chandra bhedana pranayam (moon piercing breath).  In class we do a similar breath through each nostril with a different hand position. Here, use each hand (index and middle fingers) to close off the respective nostril. To help sleep, you will inhale left, exhale right, over and over. Don’t switch the inhalations. Instead, keep repeating inhalation through the left nostril and exhalation through the right for 3 to 5 minutes. Then relax your arms, palms up. If you aren’t in bed, get there and relax flat in corpse.

This should help you sleep. If you have questions, want a video, or more pics, drop me a line or comment. If you have sleep problems and want me to design a sequence just for you, drop me a line. I use a sliding scale, and you can always bring an insomniac friend and split the cost.

Sweet dreams,
Anastasia

ouch. my wrists/hands hurt in adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog)

I’m reposting this as many of you have had questions about wrist and hand pain in down dog.

It’s a quick post to answer MM’s question about her hands—the base of her hands hurt in down dog. This is a great question, because it’s a common problem. Often the wrists hurt for people who are new or who don’t do yoga regularly (more than once or twice a week), and I think the base of the hands is a similar issue. Press into your fingers! This takes strength and getting used to. You need to press into the index and thumb fingers especially. People usually press into outside base of the hands, which keeps the weight in the outside of the forearms on up to the trapezius muscle just below the neck, where we tend to hold a lot of stress. This habit doesn’t help.

Pressing into the thumb and index fingers as well as the other three takes weight off of the wrists and outer hands and arms and spreads the weight into the upper back. As you become stronger, flexible, and more comfortable in this pose, your legs will begin to take more of the weight. In fact, Iyengar says about this asana in Light on Yoga, “It strengthens the ankles and makes the legs shapely.” Fantastic.

modified-dogimage from wellsphere.com

A modification done daily to strengthen for down dog: practice it with your hands on the wall. This can be done almost anywhere. Here are links to an article and a video that show exactly how it’s done. This is great for beginners and those with hand or wrist pain. Every day! Ask your teacher after class if you aren’t sure you are doing it right.

Originally posted Aug 1, 2009 

 

yoga vacation

Karen & Angela at Bristo Yoga School

I’m just back from a yoga holiday. On a whim I went on an ashtanga retreat in Edinburgh, Scotland with Angela Jamison. I’d never met her, but we’d corresponded and followed each other’s blogs for a few years, so it was good fun to finally meet. It was during the fringe fest, the world’s largest arts festival in the heart of Edinburgh. Karen Breneman, the lovely owner, took me in and made me feel more than at home during my stay. I also visited friends and family in England, so it was an amazing trip.

Bristo Yoga School

I like to travel with some sort of focus like this, as it adds to my trip. I’ve never been good at backpacking or hotels or hostels or wandering at random. Another museum is only interesting to me if there’s a larger context, and some interaction with locals to add perspective.

There are all sorts of ways to go about this, and it depends on your style of travel. As a once-tour guide, I’m fairly adept at organizing things myself, and both my ashtanga holidays were scheduled at whim (the first was in Sri Lanka a few years ago). Ashtanga is particularly good for this, as it’s practiced around the world. This retreat wasn’t an all day affair but morning mysore practice with maybe a short afternoon workshop, so the rest of the day was open to do as I pleased, like check out shows at the fringe, and the endlessly amazing city itself.

It helps to know the teacher when you go on retreat, as  not to be stuck with a bum deal on your holiday. But you can try your chances, too. Either go with your own, as many teachers lead retreats in lovely locales, or try out a teacher or style of yoga you’ve been curious about, on a retreat or simply visiting an interesting city with a good studio. You don’t have to do a full-fledged retreat to have an excellent yoga holiday.

There are also plenty of yoga centers and ashrams that offer a full yoga experience, or yoga package tours, often run by studios. Again, it helps to know the teacher or studio to know the vibe and style the trip will have. A quick google search will give you ideas about ashrams that offer workshops and retreats in pretty places. Many of these can be pricey, but I’m sure there are some affordable options out there. I prefer to organize things myself, which is less expensive, but can be quite a lot of work. If you want a planned, package group type thing, check out Kripalu or Esalen, or browse the ads of a yoga magazine.

And of course, there’s always Mysore.

how I found ashtanga

an awkward kukkuṭāsana

I don’t talk about my own practice much here, but it’s time. Largely because when my students leave Columbia, they always ask.

My own yoga has always shaped my teaching, and it’s taken its share of twists and turns over the years. Until 2010, I’d been doing a hatha-vinyasa practice for the previous few years and I had issues with inflammation and injury. If I took classes, often the teachers didn’t warm us up enough for all the stretching that came after. Lunges hurt the ball of my foot (sesamoiditis) and my hips ached from weird sequences (starting class with pigeon is not “shaking things up.” For most bodies, it’s unwise). Classes that did have warm-ups didn’t have cool downs. Teachers had annoying ticks. Or unfortunate taste in music. My last studio, where I did my advanced teacher training, had some great teachers, but their schedule didn’t match mine and it was hideously out of my way. An hour commute, if our friends at the MTA were in a good mood. Before this, Genny Kapuler and her soho studio were my favorite, but I’m too tightly-wound to be 100% Iyengar. I need to sweat to calm down.

I ached for a studio and a teacher that fit.

I didn’t expect to find it at the YogaWorks corporation on the UWS. But, what can I say? There was a Groupon. I took a bunch of classes for a week or two last May because it was reasonably convenient to my life, and gravitated to Evan Perry’s ashtanga classes. There is warm up. There is breath. There is wisdom in the time-tested sequencing. There is little chatter. There is no music. There are intelligent adjustments. And there are faces that became quickly familiar. It was because of these classes I started a membership at yogaworks.

My first aśtanga experience (properly it is aśtanga, but is also written ashtanga and astanga) was around 2003 at a small shala with Angela and Sharada LaSpisa. They were great but it was too hard. I could barely do Surya As, and before long, I switched to Iyengar. Years later, in January 2008, I took a class with Evan when I did a trial with yogaworks. It was hard. I liked it. But my trial ran out and I was still in grad school. Then I did my advanced teacher training at ISHTA. During that period I did an ashtanga retreat in Sri Lanka for vacay, not chosen for the yoga but because my Aussie boyfriend did not find the surf in the Caribbean pleasing. So, I went back to South Asia. It was beautiful and fun. And ashtangis are funny.

So it wasn’t a total surprise when I started getting up at the crack of dawn for Mysore practice (this site explains how Mysore differs from teacher-led classes) last summer. By fall, I had moved downtown and things had settled a bit. I made it a point to practice astanga six days a week, as prescribed. If I couldn’t get to the studio, I did it at home, or even in the gym at work. I quickly learned that it could not be a choice, going. The only way to defeat the “I could stay in bed” dialogue is to not entertain it, not even on the rainiest or snowiest of days.

Mornings of greatest resistance were countered by thoughts of the others sweating it out. The warmth of the room. The adjustments. The room full of yogis having practiced for years alongside those who started last week. The camaraderie forged by breathing together in our otherwise silent daybreak ritual. The chats afterward in the locker room and by the water cooler. It is not just the bending and jumping and twisting we rely on to start our day. For that we can practice at home, and even steal some more time in bed.

So, how do you find a good yoga studio? It’s not easy. One size does not fit all, and I’ll share more thoughts in a following post.

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aśtanga

what to wear for yoga

Preferably something opaque. Where to get it?

I just happened upon this “audio yoga mat.” I admit it could be useful if you travel a lot and can carry it around. But, I mean, really.

You do not need fancy anythings to do yoga. You need you. A mat can help, yes, and so will comfortable clothes. Tanks are better than T’s because T’s will fall over your head in inversions. Tucking in the T is not sexy (unless it is in at the moment. Hopefully that trend will pass swiftly), and will still bag around your head.

I admit a strong aversion to spending $100 for yoga pants. I also admit that since old navy changed their yoga pant style (oh, maybe four years ago now) and added the very unfortunate diamond crotch, I’m stuck with a very old and faded yoga pant wardrobe. I do not have the patience to try all the fancy pants for a replacement. I tried an athleta (since bought out by the Gap) pant and a gaiam pant (both about $70), and I hate them both. I want my old navy standard back. I’ve switched to their capris, but the diamond thing is still an issue. Who decided that was a good idea? It started in the pricey pant industry and trickled down. Unacceptable. I once saw a woman who actually had a diamond patch crotch in a different color than the rest of the pants. I thought that her pants had ripped, revealing bright unders. Good grief. We might as well be in 19th century tennis dresses.

Nice tank tops are on offer at gaiam for both guys and gals. I prefer cotton, as sporty, absorbent fabrics quickly smell bad. Gaiam duds are usually organic and possibly fair-trade. And their models aren’t underage and looking to seduce you, throwing you into despair about the underfed, sexual slavery, and child pornography (to say nothing of body image as it relates to mental and sexual happiness) while you’re simply trying to do some pant shopping. (american apparel.)

As for mats, I have three (teaching purposes). Two I bought at TJ Maxx. The oldest is a thick lilac “Everlast for Women” (haha) mat about six years ago. The little round things are coming off, sticking to my clothes and shedding all over the floor. I’m attached to this mat, but it’s time to let it go. The other Maxx mat was about $13, has a pretty design on it, and comes in lots of pretty colors. You see it around. I will most likely get another to replace the shedders. The third was a fancy, eco-friendly, apple green jute mat I bought from Amazon, which shed its juteness all over me since day one. It is coarse, unpleasant, and expensive. (More about yoga mats and reviews here. I currently recommend manduka, expensive but guaranteed for life.)

No doubt there are some gorgeous yoga clothes out there. But I find the fancier I get the more likely a breast will pop out in updog, or my unders will peak out in child’s pose, or the laundromat will destroy them after two washes. I do wear different clothes to teach and to practice, as astanga sweat and the requisite after-launder is hard on the togs. (Please, please, wash your yoga clothes. Regularly. They smell worse than you think.)

Einstein had five identical suits, so that he didn’t have to think about what he put on every day. At least, that’s what my father (who was often called his doppelganger) liked to say. And, of course, Thoreau said, “Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes.”

Both had much to say about dressing:

If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies…. It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the meat wrapped inside it.  ~Albert Einstein

It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.  ~Henry David Thoreau

If you’ve any good thoughts on what to wear and where to get it, by all means, share.

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on meditation

We’re still on break and you just want to relax a bit. But you can’t without your yoga? You don’t say. Watch this then. If you don’t wanna watch the long I’m-a-scientist-I’m-not-into-meditation-or-heaven-forbid-yoga intro, JKZ begins at 7 minutes.
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Though Kabat-Zinn is known for his work with meditation, his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program includes yoga and body awareness as well as meditation.

is yoga Hindu?

There’s a debate on about yoga’s origins, and it’s gone viral “—or as viral as things can get in a narrow Web corridor frequented by yoga enthusiasts, Hindu Americans and religion scholars.” This is the buzz covered in the November 27, 2010 article, “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul,” by Paul Vitello. What I found most fascinating about the article is that it interested enough readers to be near the top of the NYT top emailed list. I think it was #2 last night.

The gist is that Hindu-Americans want Hinduism to be credited with yoga. To be asked, “Oh! Do you do yoga?” instead of, “Oh, do you worship cows?” when a non-Hindu American learns of their religion. And because they want credit where they feel credit is due. Understandable. But the argument about yoga as religion is not new. It depends how you define Hinduism, which is a touchy subject. Do you ask scholars? Do you ask believers? Would you ask a Christian-American if you wanted to learn the facts about history? Would you ask a scholar, well, anything? (Relax, I’m teasing.) Do you ask Deepak Chopra? I, personally, would ask everyone and believe no one. I love that Hindu scholar, Diana Eck, is quoted in this article, but she doesn’t say what her opinion about the matter is. I’ve snuck in her book as the image, because I’m probably not going to mention her again and that is a fantastic book. One of my undergrad religion professors gave it to me before I went off to India way back when (1998).

Yoga is one of the six astikas, or orthodox schools of Indian philosophy, though hatha yoga likely existed long before it was adopted as part of this tradition. Orthodoxy here means that they accept the authority of the sacred Vedas. Does that mean yoga is Hindu? Not necessarily. The yoga practiced in the West is arguably related to the Yoga astika only as a cognate. Again, It depends how you define Hinduism, and it depends who you ask. Because the answer isn’t that important to me, I’m not going to go further into this topic because I think the only answer is subjective. Those who say yoga is Hindu are coming from a very different place than those who say that it is not. As I find myself between those places, there is no convenient answer.

Paul Vitello

relax

yoga studio

Yoga Breeze, Yakuin Studio, Fukuoka, Japan. Photo: ©Govinda Kai

Often I mention articles in class that, if not about yoga, are yogic in nature. Yoga, we know, is everywhere. More and more frequently scientists and other “experts” are coming around to what strikes me as common sense. But if you’ve lost touch with common sense (who hasn’t?) and instead look to experts for your answers, there’s plenty of support out there. A quick search of yoga in PubMed yields 1,496 results, and about 206,000 in Google Scholar. Slowly, the ideas behind yoga are becoming more accepted, most especially when they aren’t identified as yoga.

Often I get the feeling that students don’t want to relax and just release into the slower, more restorative poses toward the end of the class. It might not be that they don’t want to—perhaps they simply can’t. Or they feel if they do, they’ll hear something they don’t want to hear from themselves, or lose that edge, or become weak. Or they are so far away from relaxation, they are just learning how.

Because it seems difficult, I try to encourage students to rest and relax, and to find time for it in their lives. In case my ramblings don’t convince, I sometimes share others’ thoughts on the matter. Recently I drew on a New York Times article about “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” by Matt Richtel:

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory.

In that vein, recent imaging studies of people have found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime. These brain studies suggest to researchers that periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self….

“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich of Harvard Medical School. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

Did you get that? “Downtime is to the brain, what sleep is to the body.” Oh, you don’t sleep, either? The brain needs sleep, too.

From the New York Times science section, “When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays,” by John Tierney: You want happiness? Focus on something. It “is now, at long last, scientifically guaranteed to improve your mood.” I find it depressing that we need “science” to verify the obvious—or what was once obvious to those in touch with their humanity.

What is yoga? The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book One, Sutra Two: “Yogas chitta vritti nirodha. The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” You know, focus.

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Namaste नमस्ते

Months ago, a friend living in Beijing complained about yoga teachers using Sanskrit and not explaining the meaning. She was especially annoyed by closing class with “namaste,” when many didn’t know what it meant. I believe my friend and colleague Ben also takes issue with this. I’m guilty of it, I admit, largely because I do not chant in my Columbia classes, and it’s nice to have a touch of the spiritual tradition. I don’t explain simply because by the end of the class, there is less than no more time.

I always intend to explain, because I get the impression some students think it means, “thank you.” And because my friend is right, it should be explained. Namaste literally means “I bow to you.” It is the act of acknowledging the soul of another. This is also described as bowing to the divine, the light, the spirit, the humanity, in another. Some teachers also say, “The light in me bows to the light in you.” Namaste is traditionally said with the hands together in front of the heart, with the head bowed, or with the hands at the third eye, and drawn down to the heart. The posture itself literally means “Namaste,” and because the meaning is inherent in the action, it doesn’t need to be said. A final note: It is not by chance that the hands are pressed together in front of the heart.

Namaste. ;)

p.s. In response, Jessica just sent this video, which is too great not to post:

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the yoga of sylvester graham

Jessica’s fantastic comment a few posts back reminded me of my undergrad thesis on health reform. Sylvester Graham was an activist of the 1800s. He had many interesting beliefs (and followers, like Ralph Emerson and Upton Sinclair), some of which parallel those of yogis. He was generally severe, believing that such things as cold cereal and flannel clothing worn against the skin (specifically undergarments) excited the body and should be avoided. However, he was a great advocate of dance. He believed that  it was preferable that people meet to sing and dance rather than to eat and drink, lest “They should endure a miserable existence in moping melancholy, for want of proper exercise and relaxation….If I could have my wish, the Violin…should be played in every family in the civilized world” and that were singing and dancing practiced in theological seminaries, literary groups, and scientific circles, then “immense benefits…would result for society at large.” Exactly! He goes on:

The salutary influence of animating music, connected with exercise, is very great; in fact, it may almost be said to be medicinal, for it actually has the most healthful effect on all the vital functions of the body; and hence, dancing, when properly regulated, is one of the most salutary kinds of social enjoyment ever practised in civic life, and every enlightened philanthropist must regret to see it give place to any other kind of amusement. The religious prejudice against dancing is altogether ill founded; for it is entirely certain that this kind of social enjoyment is more favorable to good health, sound morality, and true religion than perhaps any other known in society.

—Graham, Sylvester. Lectures on the science of human life. New York: Fowler & Wells, 1858, p.39.

Perhaps I’m a bit off topic here, but I love to see the parallels between yoga and other health practices in American culture, historical or otherwise. Soon, a shift from art and yoga to a post on Namaste नमस्ते. What it means and why we say it.

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art & yoga :: off like a prom dress

skellyA number of sketches have been pasted to the wall of a tunnel that leads from street to subway in Manhattan. I love this one especially (cell phone snap). It gently nags me to write down my thoughts about the connections between art and yoga.

The connections between dance and yoga are seemingly more obvious than other forms of art, given that both are movement oriented, and there are many dancers in the yoga world. I know nothing about dance (or opera or theater or any of the performance arts, really) but I’ve always gone out of my way to see it. Not knowing is where my bliss comes. I’m not tempted to analyze or judge. I’m simply absorbed by the beauty of moving bodies in front of me. This absorption in the moment is yoga, and it is also art. It’s also, I imagine, where the performers need to be to pull off a powerful show. No more thought. Only the execution of what’s been learned and internalized.

I was talking about dance titles recently, which brings to mind one of my favorites: Off Like a Prom Dress (which reminds me of a fantastic Aussie saying, “a gownless evening strap.”) Friend and yoga teacher, Jessica Dixon Majka, was in this performance last month (choreography by Kara Tatelbaum) at Dance New Amsterdam.

“Off Like a Prom Dress” (2010) excerpt from Kara Tatelbaum on Vimeo.

While the physical practice of yoga might be easier for dancers, the relationship between body and mind might not be. Because dancers are trained to use their bodies as instruments, learning to be with the body rather than guide it can be difficult. Depending on training, a dancer might be inspired to move through the asanas easily, without connecting, in a way someone entirely unaware of his body might not. In this way, learning a different relationship of mind, breath, and body can be transformative. I wonder what effects this has when taken back into dance.

ways of knowing // 5,000 years continued

To address Ben’s comment in the last post (5,000 years?), I want to say that to some extent, I agree. But there is a difference between the “kinds of consciousness one accesses by practicing yoga” and yoga. They are not the same thing. Calling something yoga before yoga existed is questionable.

I like Ben’s assertion: “anything that brings one closer to the full embodiment and expression of oneself to be ‘yoga,’” but it’s also very time and place specific. What the “self” means in rural China and what it means in New York City are two very different things in 2010, much less 5,000 years ago. The idea of being one’s “true self” is not universal. It doesn’t even hold the same meaning for everyone right now, 2010, in NYC.

But this wasn’t what I was speaking to in the last post. I was objecting to teachers and others stating that yoga is 5,000 years old without explaining what they mean by yoga, so students don’t think that hanumanasana (for example) is 5,000 years old. Even worse—teachers not knowing themselves that hanumanasana isn’t likely 5,000 years old.

That said, we don’t know definitively that hanumanasana isn’t 5,000 years old. We just don’t know that it is any older than a hundred or so years, which makes 5,000 quite a number to throw out casually. I agree with what Ben is getting at, which, I think, is that the practice of yoga is in some way eternal, and that yoga existed before it was known as such. Edwin Bryant, a scholar of Yoga and Hinduism at Rutgers, believes that, “The origins of yoga are in primordial and mythic times.” In saying this, I’m switching gears and appealing to a less quantitative way of understanding, which we often neglect and devalue, and the practice of yoga can help us cultivate and respect. Though Vedism and Tantrism are both textual traditions, text is not the only source of knowledge or knowing. Just because we haven’t proved something scientifically (in whatever discipline) or textually does not mean it’s untrue.

So, while I doubt that the Primary Series was the rage in ancient Pakistan, I do think that the roots of yoga have been around since we have. Thanks for the interesting comment, Ben.

 

5,000 years?

I have to admit, I sometimes ask myself if I’m part of this world. The yoga world, I mean. On Tuesday, the New York Times wrote a piece on foodies and yoga, and it seems to be popular, given its rank on their most emailed list: “When Chocolate and Chakras Collide.”

My favorite part of the piece was  a comment from Sadie Nardini about judgment in the yoga world, about being “yogier than thou.” What do I think about sampling food on a yoga mat? To each her own. Is it yoga? Does it matter?

I′m not terribly troubled by what people choose to call yoga, as most of what is practiced now bears little resemblance to its history, and why should it? Traditions need to evolve to be relevant. I do have a pet peeve about the “5000-year-old practice” line (which appeared in that NYT article), stated as if yogis were hopping through sun salutations in 2990 b.c.e. They weren’t.

seal

I suppose I should say, I’m not terribly troubled by what people choose to call yoga, as long as it isn’t this 5,000+ year old seal.

The philosophy of yoga is fairly old and can be dated back to at least the mid-first century b.c.e. Some of the asanas (postures) can be definitively dated back to the 10th century c.e., as described in the Pāñcarātrika Samhitās (see Mallinson), but many date back only a century or two. Years ago, in one of the first books I read on yoga (I don’t read that much about yoga, I practice it), Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India, he asserts that the sun salutations are adapted from Indian martial tradition in the late 1800s, when the Hindu masculinity movement was strong (I wax on about this in another post), and ever since it’s grated on me when people boast that yoga is 5,000 years old. The date of 5,000 b.c.e. comes from an ancient seal found in Mohenjo-daro with Shiva sitting in a seated position (though Shiva was not quite Shiva until around 200 b.c.e). All around, the argument is pretty weak. A picture of someone sitting = yoga? There are images of Egyptians in backbends. Were they yogis? You can imagine the fun academics have pulling that apart. Many agree that not only is it not yoga, but not Shiva, or even necessarily male. It’s important to note as well that the seal was found in a series of seals with figures depicted in other less formal, less yogic-looking seats (see Doris Srinivasan, “The So-Called Proto-śiva Seal from Mohenjo-Daro: An Iconological Assessment,”Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 29, (1975/1976), pp. 47-58).

Looking around the web, I’m glad to see that others seek historical accuracy as well, e.g. Kate Churchill and Nick Rosen in the documentary Enligthen Up! The next post flushes out my less quantitative take on the matter.

bikram yoga: good or bad?

bikramBikram is thought of by many yogis as “not real yoga,” whatever that means. Why? Well, it’s incredibly body oriented, and most people attracted to it (it seems to me) are primarily interested in their bodies lookin’ good, as there isn’t much attention to anything but forcing yourself, asana, and some heating pranayama.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing. It is what it is. A bikram yoga studio is heated to a recommended 105° F/40.5° C to assist flexiblity (warm bodies are more flexible than cold) and sweat, with the hope of detoxifying the body. Bikram Choudhury (the founder) has gained attention for claiming trademark and copyright on his sequence of 26 yoga asanas (poses) and threatening to sue anyone who teaches them without his approval. “This is enlightenment?” many ask, including Nora Isaacs at salon.com. Apparently so, as Bikram has compared his speedoed self to the Buddha (photo above, sans speedo but no less awesome, care of his website).

How do I feel about Bikram yoga? Mixed. I tried it at Funky Door Yoga every day for a week while visiting a friend in San Francisco in 2005 and I liked it a lot. I liked it most, probably, because I love to be warm. It felt great to sweat. I personally think Bikram might be trying to recreate the climate of India in those heated rooms, which makes sense in a certain way. I didn’t find it that hard—it wasn’t a vigorous vinyasa, but 26 poses performed one after another. Maybe some are repeated. I’ve forgotten.

My concerns about Bikram concern safety and health. Some of the asanas aren’t for every body, and there were people in the room trying to do poses that could be downright dangerous. One of the poses, supta virasana, is a standard pose that most western bodies just don’t manage without props (there are no props in Bikram). Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen once said that this asana sends more people to the emergency room than any other (blows out the knee) and yogajournal even issues a caution before explaining the pose on its site.

Another concern is that imbalanced people (most of us) tend toward what we don’t need. Bikram tends to attract hot-headed, aggressive, type-A people. In yogic thought, the last thing such people need to do is hop into a 105° room and sweat it up. Instead, they need to learn how to chill out. And I must say that the few people I’ve known to do Bikram regularly aren’t particularly relaxed or present (not that, ah, I judge). Even if this strikes you as hogwash, the question of how healthy it is to work out in that kind of heat does present itself, especially if the student has health issues.

I’m not so much into good or bad. If you like Bikram and it’s working for you, great. I think it might even be good for people who tend to be cold (physically), retiring, or in need of a boost.

2014 Update: Bikram is something of a scoundrel. If you are seriously interested, check out the book Hell Bent by Benjamin Lorr, or at the least read this Vanity Fair article about the rape and harassment cases against him.


what are the different types of yoga? what is hatha?

The styles of yoga on offer are endless. Teachers often blend different practices to suit their needs, and give it a name that ends up on a class schedule, familiar only to those who frequent the studio. Most types of yoga stem from a few different schools, which have splintered into countless directions.

ardha_pinkYoga as we know it in the West—physical yoga—is but one of many types of yoga. It is called hatha yoga. Our appropriation of the term hatha to describe a style of physical yoga strays from the traditional Indian usage of the term. For most Indians, the term yoga is most closely associated with rajayoga philosophy, or with dhyana, meditation (though that’s changing due to hatha yoga’s popularity in the West). Unlike the general western concept of meditation, dhyana is not specifically body-oriented. It doesn’t necessarily mean seated meditation, nor does it necessarily exclude the body or hatha yoga.

When reading about types of western yoga, keep in mind that any physical yoga is hatha yoga (I won’t italicize when speaking in western terms), but it is also used to describe a style of yoga. More on that in the schools section.

Other types of yoga, as per Vivekananda‘s interpretation, which is, if not historically accurate, how yoga is commonly understood today, are:

raja yoga: cultivation of the mind/meditation
karma yoga: discipline of action
bhakti yoga: blissful devotion to the divine
jnana yoga: path of knowledge

In the West, we are best acquainted with hatha (physical) yoga, and usually use the term loosely to describe yoga that is fairly basic, slow, and relaxing, probably because it was associated with Sivananda and Integral Yoga, who also practice raja, karma, and bhakti yogas, and so they logically designated their fairly basic physical practice as hatha. And then everyone else did too. If you are new to yoga, a beginner’s hatha class is a good place to start, especially if you are out of touch with your body.

Because “hatha” is used so generally, ask what the class is like before you show up.

Sivananda, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Integral, and Kripalu are all traditions of hatha yoga founded by Indian gurus. They all stress the spiritual aspects of yoga and include chanting, as well as short periods of meditation. Viniyoga developed from the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya and his Madras-based student-son T.K.V. Desikachar. It stresses the adaptation of yoga practice to the needs of each person.

Keep in mind, these styles of yoga are hatha yoga. Viniyoga and Kripalu would also consider themselves to be styles of vinyasa as well. While other types of yoga, e.g. Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power Yoga, Bikram, etc. are not generally thought of as hatha in the west, they are hatha yoga in the physical sense and may be thought of as such.

how to do headstand (sirsasana)

In comments past, Merka asked:  “My vinyasa instructor LOVES inversions and headstands. However, I am slightly terrified of headstands because my arms are quite shaky when I do them. Do you recommend any arm exercises, in addition to downward dog, that would help build muscle? How do I encourage my body to relax when I’m in this position?”

I’m going to backtrack on this, because it also relates to M’s comment on virtual yoga, and because it seems to me that there is a lot of mystique and self-worth tied up with sirsasana and other inversions in a yoga practice. For some reason, many people seem to feel that if they can’t or don’t do headstand, they aren’t really doing yoga. I’m not suggesting this is you, Merka. It just reminds me that I know so many students who are fixated on it to the point of taking away from their overall practice. Yes, it’s cool to go upside down and there are many benefits. But it’s also very dangerous to do improperly because it can put so much weight on the neck, and those dangers can far exceed the benefits.

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BKS Iyengar in headstand. Photo from haxoyoga.com

When I started doing yoga, I was quite weak. I did yoga because it relaxed me, and I had no designs on ever doing headstand, armstand, or anything I deemed fancy. But over the years (two?), a regular, well-balanced yoga practice gave me the strength and balance to do them easily. It was a natural progression that felt neither dramatic nor effortful.  And while I do practice headstead, I know much more accomplished practioners than myself who don’t do headstand because of neck issues or other concerns. My point: if you don’t feel solid and safe in headstand, don’t do it. In this case, not doing headstand is being kind to yourself, and much more yogic.

So what do you do in class if everyone else is going up, and you feel inferior because you aren’t? Or feel like your being a wimp because you could, but…? Find your breath. It’s much better to feel comfortable where you are then to hurt yourself. Headstand does not make you a better yogi or a better person. Practice dolphin to forearm plank, which most instructors teach as a strengthening option for students not going up. If you are going up, use a wall. If the teacher doesn’t provide that option, and you don’t feel comfortable going to the wall anyway, then skip it and practice at home.

I often skip headstand in class if the teacher doesn’t know me well (or vice versa) and it’s taught in the middle of the room because I have a subtle twist through my body (because of dominant sight in one eye since birth. It’s been there through development) that often isn’t noticed until headstand, and I’m not interested in having that conversation or being misguided while upside down and unsupported in the middle of a stranger’s class.  So instead I do dolphin or whatever feels appropriate to me. And no one cares.

scorpion

If you fixate on headstand without looking at why you so desire to master it, as soon as you have, you’ll forget that accomplishment and chase after the next impressive pose. Image from dharmayogacenter.com.

Different schools have different ideas about how headstand should be done. Where I first trained, it was said that students shouldn’t be near the wall because they’d come to depend on it. I thought that was silly (training wheels, anyone?) and never tried headstand there for that reason. No way was I trying that in the middle on the floor. Other schools, like Iyengar, believe that it’s fine to have the wall behind you and come up one leg at a time when you are learning, as long is it is slow and careful, the abs are engaged, the forearms press down, and there’s no hopping. (I don’t mean press your body against the wall. I mean the wall is a few inches a way in case you fall back.) This is how I learned. Then I switched to a school that insists on coming up two legs at a time to protect the neck (which took some acclimation) but walls are fine. Yoga Journal advocates the two leg method, but suggests that hopping is okay: “Take both feet up at the same time, even if it means bending your knees and hopping lightly off the floor.” After years of safely lifting on leg at a time, I hurt my neck by “hopping lightly” with both legs. I don’t think it’s a good idea. Neither is throwing one leg up at a time, of course, or letting your head and neck take the weight.

I’m not interested in saying one way is right and another is wrong. All schools and methods are valid for their own reasons. Find one (one) that works for you and a good teacher who can guide you. Personal issues and injuries aside, you will progress to headstand when you have the strength, and you will move that into the middle of the room with the confidence and grace that come from a regular yoga practice. As they say, “Chit happens.”

grammar for yoga teachers

When looking for a studio to complete my advanced training, I admit that somewhere in the process of choosing ISHTA, a deciding factor was that most of their teachers had a basic command of grammar. Perhaps I could be less judgmental, but it’s a matter of elegance. If you want your students to respect you and trust the knowledge you have to impart, it doesn’t hurt to know a few basics about words and phrases that are commonly used in yoga.

When to say “lay” and when to say “lie.” This is quite easy, as it’s generally used in present tense. The issue is not the action or the subject, it’s simply whether the verb takes a direct object. “Lay” takes a direct object, “lie” does not. Huh?

Lay your head down on the mat. Lay what? If you can answer that with a word in your sentence (your head, your hand, your iphone, yourself), use “lay.”

Lie down on the mat. Lie what? If there’s no word there to explain what (a direct object), then it’s “lie.” Lie over the bolster, not lay over the bolster.

(Note that “bolster” does not answer the question of what is to be moved.)

Fairly easy, if you quickly ask yourself if what is to be moved is in the sentence before you choose your words.

spine

Another frequent problem is vertebra vs. vertebrae. The first is singular, the second plural. We have 33 vertebrae, each one a vertebra. “Roll up to the top of your spine, stacking the vertebrae as you go.” “Roll up the spine, one vertebra at a time.” Same goes for scapula and scapulae, though scapulas is also correct plural form. Scapula is not.

I’ll refrain from some pet peeves, which aren’t exactly grammatical errors, such as suggesting the class enjoy a “juicy” hip opener. For the visual student, this is quite distracting. When not pertaining to food or weather, juicy connotes:

a. Rich in wealth, fit to be ‘sucked’ (quot. 1621); or  c. Suggestive, esp. in a sexual way; piquant, racy, sensational. colloq.

Is this really what we want to imbibe? (Definitions care of OED.)

Feel free to share your favorite yoga pet peeves. Perhaps we can learn something from them.

how to slide pranayama into your day

After working on my general blog all week, which includes some info about my ashtanga retreat in Sri Lanka, I’m tempted to write about nethra vyamamam (yogic eye exercises). My eyes are burning after staring at the computer screen all day and I haven’t done these practices regularly in years. Alas, I’ll stay on topic: fitting pranayama into the day. Lauren asked how to fit it in when not practicing asana, and Amy wants to know the same.

To Lauren, I say try to get a little bit of asana in every day, even if it’s just a long adho mukha svanasana (down dog) or a surya namaskara (sun salutation) or two. Even viparita karani (legs up the wall) is better than nothing. If you have ten minutes, consider these.

I try to do five minutes of pranayama in the morning or before bed. If I’m energetic, I just sit down and do it. If I’m exhausted, I make my way into legs up the wall and rest there a few minutes. Then I begin some gentle pranayama. If it’s morning, I might sit up afterward and do more vigorous pranayama if I have time, and end with a savanasa (corpse pose). If you don’t have five minutes? You need pranayama even more than when you do. Squeeze it in! It will create the space you need to minimize stress by stepping back so that you don’t overreact to situations and make small problems bigger by creating mind storms (vritti) over little things, like unpleasant service or a missed subway.

Which techniques I choose are similar to what I’d choose for a class, mentioned in the last post.

I suspect you want some ideas about pranayama on the subway and at your desk. Yes, you can take a 5 minute break and breathe. You know this—the real question is how to create the discipline to do it. Creating a habit is probably the best option. “Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day, and at last we cannot break it” (Horace Mann). Until the habit is formed, make yourself take a break for pranayama everyday at the same time daily, or when you are doing something specific, like riding home on the train, or when you begin to feel a certain way. After hours at the computer, I begin to feel a bit spacey. That’s my time.

pranay.women

image from SarahLee.tv

Obviously, your choice of pranayama will be somewhat determined by where you are. In public, apa japa, deergha swasam or the krama breath are good choices. If your work space is somewhat private, you can do almost anything that won’t get in the way of your ability to return to what you were doing (nothing too intense). Make a note of how you feel after each exercise. If time permits, write it in an email or in your calendar so that you can reflect on how it’s helping. This can help to ingrain the habit.

If you find that you have trouble making yourself practice, do pranayama before whatever you usually do—before you open your book or ipod on the train, before tea, coffee, or chocolate, before calling a friend or searching out co-workers at the water cooler (Andrea). And make sure you’re practicing pranayama regularly with a teacher, which can be inspirational itself. If your teacher doesn’t do pranayama, ask if s/he’ll start. Many teachers are shy to instruct it because they think it’s not wanted.

In researching yoga blogs, I happened upon this bit about going home and getting on the mat instead of the internet, even for a minute. Yes! For me, that minute can turn into a 90 minute practice—even when I’d thought I was hungry.

pranayama प्राणायाम

Thanks for all the excellent comments. Because I’m delighted and surprised that there’s an interest in pranayama (breathing practices), that’s where I’ll start.

Pranayama translates from the Sanskrit, प्राणायाम, as “restraint of life force.” Prana is life force, or energy, similar to qi (chi) in Chinese medicine. It is said to travel most easily with the breath, and prana is sometimes translated as breath, or even as spirit. Iyengar says that, “It is as difficult to explain Prana as it is to explain God….prana is the principle of life and consciousness. It is equated with the real Self (Atma)….Chitta [mindstuff, or thoughts] and prana are in close association.”

The suffix -āyāma translates as regulate, restrain, or most commonly, control. In the Indian edition of Light on Pranayama, the opening page explains, “Pranayama, the yogic art of breathing, leads to a control of emotions which in turn brings stability, concentration, and mental poise.” Who doesn’t need a bit of that?

Pranayama Yoga chart Reproduction of illustration from Yogini Sunita’s, Pranayama Yoga: The Lotus and the Rose: The Art of Relaxation, Walsall, England, 1965

This is a vast topic, and I’d love input from teachers more versed in it than myself. Some argue that pranayama is too powerful for beginners to practice. I disagree. I learned the fundamentals of yoga in a class at IYI that taught three pranayama techniques at the end of every class. When my practice advanced, I explored other classes around the city, and while many were amazing, I noticed that without the pranayama (which is absent in most classes), the classes weren’t as grounding and the effects didn’t last as long.

I don’t want to get into how to do pranayama here. It’s best to learn from a teacher in person, rather than by reading about it. I do think it’s valuable to talk about different types of pranayama and their benefits. The quick parenthetical explanations below are meant as quick descriptors or reminders—not instructions!

In the last post Sarah commented, “I love to do some sort of centering technique before asana to draw my attention to the midline, like nadi shodana (alternate nostril) or a ham-sa kriya (attention up and down the spine). I would love to hear what other people do after asana, if not going right into meditation.”

I, too, like to begin class with pranayama, not only because I find it impossible to squeeze into the end of my short, 60-minute classes. I usually start with a reclined apa japa (simple awareness of breath) or deergha swasam (complete, three-part breath), followed by krama breath on the inhalation (inhale-hold for three steps of inhalation), or a seated nadi shodana, sitali (inhalation through rolled tongue), or kapalabhati (skull-shining, with quick expulsions on the exhalation and natural, small inhalations). It depends on the mood of the class. If they need to settle, I’m partial to nadi shodana. If they need energy or if it’s cold in the room, kapalabhati. If it’s hot, sitali. If they’re a little dull, krama. I haven’t taught murcha (covering the ears) or bramuri (murcha with humming on exhale) yet, but I plan to start, as I love them. I think bastrika is too intense for my short classes, so I don’t teach it. I do teach the bandhas (locks), but subtly.

After asana, I don’t usually have time for pranayama, but in the IYI classes that I mentioned, deerga swasam was taught directly after savasana (corpse pose), followed by kapalabhati, nadi shodana, one minute of meditation, and closing chants (in that order).  If I had time, I’d definitely teach any of the above-mentioned breaths after asana, except kapalabhati or bastrika as there isn’t enough time afterward to ground. I also might add krama on exhalation as well. How do others approach this? And how do you discipline yourself to end in time for pranayama, if time is short?

In comments on the last post, Lauren said that she’s “interested in learning more on the different breathing techniques and how I can incorporate these techniques into my life when I am not practicing.” I’ll speak to this in the next post.

An aside: I imagined that all the unemployed were probably sending people to long term volunteer stays at places like Kripalu and other ashrams. Indeed, the New York Times did a story on it the other day.

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